Public health and human rights: The new language of the drug policy debate

Jan 08, 2014

The 54th Session of the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control (CICAD, in Spanish) of the Organization of American States (OAS), which took place December 11th to 13th in Bogotá, Colombia, offered an unprecedented opportunity to debate drug policy from the perspective of public health and human rights. The meeting, overseen by the Colombian government (which currently holds the rotating presidency of the international body), represented a milestone in leaving behind the repressive perspectives of past years, with their focus on reducing supply, centering the discussion instead on vulnerable communities and the dignity of people affected by drug problems—especially consumers.  

The CICAD session was preceded by an open and frank dialogue between representatives of the region’s governments and members of civil society, overseen by Colombia’s ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs, with support from the Woodrow Wilson Center, Fundación Ideas para la Paz, and OSF. In total, more than 100 people—from 13 countries and 20 NGOs, including a dozen subject-area experts, met to share their perspectives and discuss possible solutions to respond to the drug problem affecting the continent. This CICAD-supported space for debate allowed participants to identify common concerns and possible outcomes, which were then raised again during the ordinary session. Throughout the hemispheric gathering, the idea of using a “new” language that places emphasis on health and human rights was affirmed, in direct response to the appeal made in the OAS’s Report on the Problem of Drugs in the Americas. As Paul Simons, Executive Secretary of the OAS, stated, the report invites governments to adopt a more “human” focus that puts people at the center of the agenda. 

In the CICAD itself, the level of civil society participation was unprecedented, compared with previous years, and seems to have had an impact on the debate. Graciela Touze, director of the Argentina NGO Intercambios, agreed. “[I]n this CICAD, there’s been an emphasis like never before on a public health and human rights focus, with a strong recognition that it’s important not to criminalize drug users or the weakest links [of the drug chain].” Coletta Youngers, representative of the International Consortium on Drug Policy (IDPC), affirmed that the open dialogue with governments allowed civil society to expound its points of view to a wide range of officials and suggest possible alternatives centered in human rights. 

This “new” language, contained in the event report and reiterated in the conclusions of the ordinary sessions held in Colombia, recognizes that future responses to the drug problem must necessarily:

  • place the individual at their center, strengthening the focus on public health from a human rights perspective;
  • assume that harmonizing international obligations of States’ in the spheres of drugs and human rights is not an option but an requirement;
  • guarantee opportunities and social inclusion for drug users and those around them, recognizing the capacities of communities to create change;
  • respect drug users as people with human rights and fundamental freedoms;
  • accept that repression is an insufficient policy and that a multifaceted response is necessary; and
  • recognize the necessity of finding alternatives to incarceration for drug-related crimes.

One point to highlight is the recognition that legal regulation is a politically viable option. Square in the middle of this hemispheric meeting, Uruguay’s senate approved a bill to regulate cannabis, a decision that was dealt with respectfully by the delegations at CICAD, even though some continue to emphasize the importance of complying with the conventions. Secretary general José Miguel Insulza issued a call for tolerance and openness to new emphases, after 40 years of the war on drugs. Colombia, for its part, noted in its conclusions “the relevance of flexibility and respect among States when it comes to novel alternatives for managing the drug problem.”

Within this “new” language, it’s also important to highlight specific references by various countries in the region—among them Colombia and Mexico—to “harm reduction,” a term that until now has proven polemical different international fora. While the CICAD didn’t delve deeply into this perspective, it is a positive sign that harm reduction approaches could be incorporated into interventions directed at people who consume drugs.

Now the principle challenge of member countries is to convert this “new” language into practice. As Colombian health minister Alejandro Gaviria said, leaving behind the reductionist perspectives of the past is only a first step; now it is necessary to, “take on the challenge of designing, putting into practice, and evaluating good public policies.” 

That will require political decisions based on evidence and supported by resources and institutional capacity, with active support from society. Colombia and Guatemala (as president and vice-president of the CICAD in this period) stand to play a fundamental role in deepening the debate, seeking consensus, and generating changes. This is the moment to move from words to deeds, which will require concrete proposals that put at their center the rights and freedoms of people.

This article was originally published here

A Spanish version of this article is available through Fundación Ideas para La Paz

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