Today in Vienna marks the opening of a United Nations meeting that will review the last decade of UN drug policy and set policy for the next one--and, by implication, the course for the global response to the HIV epidemic.
As an advocate who works in the United States on public health and human rights issues, particularly as they relate to HIV/AIDS, drug use, and harm reduction, I have followed the events leading up to this meeting with a sense of trepidation. The signs have not been good. Would the UN Member States assemble a political declaration almost identical to the last one? The 1998 version dealt with drug demand reduction by adopting what we now know to be the expensive, ineffective, and disastrous law-and-order route that has cost the US alone 40 billion per year--without significantly reducing either supply or demand--and made us the world's largest jailer of our own people.
Or would this be the year that member states would move towards a public health and human rights approach to drug policy?
We entered into this High-Level meeting with a tremendous victory. After four US Federal administrations denying the efficacy of needle exchange as an effective HIV prevention strategy, the Obama administration has changed the course of US policy. After a great deal of pressure was exerted on the new administration , it affirmed its support for needle exchange in a statement issued in mid February--a significant step forward for the UN's biggest contributor.
However the US decision, in the very same statement, to reject the inclusion of the term "harm reduction" in the Political Declaration being endorsed at this meeting is extremely short sighted and problematic. It puts the US in the position of sitting in judgment of successful programs being run by many countries globally; it also ignores the very successful use of harm reduction in the United States to stem the tide of overdose deaths, low threshold drug treatment and Hepatitis C treatment and care in major centers including New York City. Worst of all, it negates the sound science behind interventions like safer injection spaces or heroin prescription programs.
This meeting is unfortunately timed. Whereas the new Obama administration is making steps to move in a more progressive human rights based direction, the groundwork for the drafting of the Political Declaration has taken place with State Department employees who took their direction from the previous administration and haven't yet been presented with a new agenda. Sadly it will be another 10 years before there will be an opportunity to revisit UN drug policy again.