Looking Ahead to the UN General Assembly Session on Drugs

By Mary Margulis-Ohnuma On October 21st, I attended a meeting at UN Headquarters in New York entitled, the “Sixth Civil Society Hearing in preparation for the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs.”  It was hosted by the Civil Society Task Force (CSTF) for UNGASS 2016, a group that was formed by the New York NGO Committee on Drugs (of which City Bar Committee on Drugs & the Law member Heather Haase is the Chair) and the Vienna NGO Committee on Drugs. The CSTF’s membership includes representatives from NGOs around the world with a focus on analyzing and shaping global drug policy.  These meetings are being held to prepare for the UN General Assembly’s Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS), which will take place in April 2016. The October 21 NGO hearing panelists included members of the CSTF as well as activists and UN officers.  The CSTF presented its conclusions and findings from its Global Civil Society Survey, an online survey translated into 11 languages and conducted over three months earlier this year of NGOs around the world that are involved in drug-related fields.  The survey called for responses in five thematic areas that will be the focus of the April 2016 UNGASS:  drugs and health; drugs and crime; human rights, women, children and communities; new challenges; and alternative development. Preliminary Report on Global Civil Society Survey Dr. Sheila Vakharia of Long Island University presented a Preliminary Report on the findings of the survey. In the area of Drugs & Health, there was a call for increased support, funding and development of evidence-based and evidence-informed drug prevention initiatives.  In particular, the need for early intervention and education of youth and at-risk adults was highlighted as a cornerstone for drug prevention.   Those surveyed raised the recurring theme of the need for a “health response” to the drug problem— rather than criminal prosecution— and that alternatives to incarceration, including treatment and rehabilitation services, are crucial.  Moreover, those surveyed raised the issue of the stigma associated with drugs, which is worsened by the criminalization of drugs, and which has long-term negative consequences on the health of drug-addicted people who may avoid accessing health services and/or suffer discrimination and ill treatment by health care providers. On the theme of Drugs & Crime, survey respondents raised the issues of unequal enforcement of drug policies and disparate sentencing; the connection between drug trafficking, human trafficking and sex trafficking; and concerns that the current prohibition policies fund organized crime and terrorism.  There was a call for data to be collected on the economic and social impact of current drug policy, including the costs of mass incarceration. With respect to Human Rights, Women, Children and Communities, survey respondents were overwhelmingly in favor of eliminating the death penalty for drug offenses; noted that the current prohibition policy “ignores human rights of people suffering dependency”; and stated that drug users “should be entitled to programs to improve their health and well-being, access to their basic necessities for livelihood, fair legal trials, proportionate sentences, and freedom from torture or mistreatment.”  In particular, they would like to see the UN Office on Drugs and Crime develop guidelines tailored to treating and protecting young people from the impact of drugs.  Respondents also called for gender sensitivity in drug policy, noting that women addicted to drugs have unique needs; for example, pregnant women and women with children need gender-specific health and social services.  Survey results also underscored the need for increased awareness and focus on traditionally marginalized populations that are disproportionately impacted by drug policies, i.e., LGBT individuals, sex workers, older adults, and people with chronic pain and health issues. As for New Challenges, those surveyed noted that there are new psychoactive substances that need to be better understood and addressed; that there is a need for guidelines and possibly reinterpretation of the existing Conventions on drugs and drug policy; and that there are diverse views on decriminalization vs. regulation. And on the topic of Alternative Development, the respondents highlighted several areas for further study and development, including:  the intersection of drugs, development, poverty and the environment; the need to look at “indigenous communities, traditional use, and sustainable community approaches”; and the need to come up with viable alternatives so farmers can transition to farming of legal crops. Highlights from the Panel Andrea Huber, of Penal Reform International (PRI), spoke about the impact of world drug policies on human rights.  PRI did a study which concluded that the “war on drugs” has not made society safer, and that the current punitive approach has led to the erosion of human rights and overcrowding in prisons.  They want to see possession of drugs for personal use decriminalized, and sentencing that is gender-sensitive and takes the impact on society into account (e.g., imprisoning parents is not in the best interests of children).  She also noted that there is an overlap between women imprisoned for drug crimes and sexual exploitation, and that drug policies need to be sensitive to this issue. Dr. Gregory Bunt, of the International Society of Addiction Medicine, noted that addiction is a treatable disease, and that policymakers need to be educated on the importance of access to effective treatment and to move global drug policy away from criminal prosecution.  He also noted that drug treatment and policies need to be modified for different people – i.e., that pregnant women and children need specialized treatment – and that addictions disproportionately affect vulnerable populations (poor, children, mentally ill). Dr. Bunt explained that addiction leads to erosion of character and values, which can then lead to criminal behavior, and that those suffering from addiction do not have access to cost-effective treatment as an alternative to harsh criminal penalties and incarceration.  However, there are cost-effective treatment options that can, and should, be made available:  for example, there are new medications to treat opiate addictions and alcoholism, and new medications being studied to treat cocaine addiction; Naloxone, an opiate blocker, should be made more widely available to reduce the number of overdose deaths; and more resources should be spent on developing therapeutic communities and recovery networks, i.e., people who overcame addictions and can serve as role models and mentors.  Harm reduction and a continuum of care are important, cost-effective ways to end addiction. Andrea James, a former lawyer who spent two years in the federal women’s correctional facility in Danbury, talked about the dehumanizing effect of imprisonment and the unique issues that women in prison face— for example, that imprisonment during childbearing years may mean the loss of any opportunity to have children; that imprisonment may mean separation from nursing infants and young children, and the erosion of the family structure; that children suffer ongoing social problems when their mothers are incarcerated; that pregnant women are still routinely shackled while in labor; that women lack adequate feminine hygiene products in prison; that incarcerated women are a particularly vulnerable population and endure harassment and rape; and that women of color, who already suffer discrimination in terms of employment rate and pay scale, suffer added and sometimes insurmountable problems in finding employment and adequate housing for themselves and their children after a drug-related criminal conviction. In addition, CSTF members Eze Eluchie, CSTF Representative for Sub-Saharan Africa, and Khuat Thi Hai Oanh, CSTF Representative for Southeast and East Asia, delivered video messages on the ongoing NGO consultations in their regions, and Dr. Emmanuel Luyirika, Executive Director of the African Palliative Care Association appeared in a video message in which he discussed the need for safe, effective access to controlled medicines in Africa. The meeting highlighted the fact that many NGOs focused on the social and human rights implications of the existing global drug policy observe that the current systems are not working—that drug production, addiction, violence and drug crimes continue to wreak havoc on our communities, and that punitive approaches are not alleviating the problem (and may be exacerbating it).  These groups hope to make meaningful contributions to reshaping international drug policy through studies, surveys, discussions and participation at meetings like the UNGASS, in hopes of redirecting efforts away from criminalization and incarceration and toward treatment and prevention.  There will be additional discussion forums and hearings leading up to the UNGASS in April 2016 in which the groups will continue to discuss and develop their goals and strategies. City Bar Efforts on Drug Policy Reform The City Bar has a solid history of advocating for drug policy reform.  In 1994, our Drugs & the Law Committee published a report entitled, “A Wiser Course:  Ending Drug Prohibition,” which argued that the model of prohibition and punishment has not worked to eradicate the drug problem but, instead, has led to court congestion, a “prison state,” erosion of the rule of law and civil liberties, a disproportionate impact on minorities, prohibition-induced violence, spread of disease through shared needles, and diversion of resources that would be better spent on treatment and prevention.  The report called for treating drugs as a public health problem rather than strictly a criminal law problem.  And, in addition to prevention and treatment, the report underscored the importance of education, rehabilitation and reentry programs. In 2009, the committee published a follow-up, “A Wiser Course:  Ending Drug Prohibition, 15 Years Later,” in which it renewed its call for a serious overhaul of U.S. drug policy, including the need to revamp the Controlled Substances Act and address social problems caused by current drug policies (rise of international drug cartels, overburdened prison system, broken families). And in 2012, the committee published a report on the international drug control treaties, how they shape (and, at some level, dictate) U.S. drug policy, and how domestic drug policy reform depends in large part on a global paradigm shift.  Last month, the City Bar issued a report entitled, “Mass Incarceration: Seizing the Moment for Reform,” which calls on federal and state leaders to “make the reduction of mass incarceration a top priority,” particularly with respect to nonviolent low-level drug offenders.  The report identifies multiple areas for reform, including: repealing or reducing mandatory minimum sentencing provisions; reducing sentences for non-violent offenses; expanding sentencing alternatives to prison, including drug programs, mental health programs and job training; expanding the availability of rehabilitative services, including counseling and educational opportunities, so that individuals can successfully re-enter society and avoid recidivism; eliminating or reducing financial conditions of pretrial release; providing opportunities for individuals with misdemeanor and non-violent felony convictions to seal those records to prevent employment and other types of discrimination; and, in New York, enacting legislation to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 16 to 18 years old.  The City Bar also announced the formation of a Mass Incarceration Task Force made up of prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and other experts to further address these issues and advocate for change at the city, state and federal levels. The City Bar also sponsors panels to explore these issues, including an upcoming event on November 10th entitled “What’s New in New York City Cannabis Policy.” We look forward to continued multinational dialogue on drug policy and reform, and hope to see long-awaited calls for change implemented at both the national and global levels as the City Bar continues to advocate for solutions in this area. Mary Margulis-Ohnuma is Policy Counsel at the New York City Bar Association