The Future of Drug Policy Reform After UNGASS 2016

September 12, 2016

Twenty-seven civil society activists, researchers, and practitioners from 20 countries traveled to Budapest last week to participate in an executive course on the opportunities and challenges to drug policy reform after the April 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs. The workshop, which was funded by the Open Society Foundations, was organized by the Global Policy Academy at CEU's School of Public Policy. The course attracted a particularly large number of Latin American participants, an indication of the salience of drug policy debates in that region.

Participants brought a wealth of experience and very different perspectives that made the four-day professional development workshop useful, informative, and engaging for them and for the SPP students who had a chance to attend the workshop as facilitators. "What really made the course dynamic and unique for me is that the participants came from all over the world, and that they were eager to share their experiences and reflect on others' experiences in drug policy reform," commented second-year MPA student Aron Suba.

The diverse perspectives informed discussions on issues such as harm reduction; access to services; the stigma associated with drug use; disease and public health risks; and the challenges that current drug policy poses to effective promotion and protection of health and health-related rights. There were also sessions on the role of the criminal justice system and cryptomarkets. "Bringing this wide range of opinions under one roof – from sociologists, human rights defenders, health, justice, development, and security experts – is essential to respond to future challenges," said SPP alumna Lucia Sobekova (MPA 2016).

Those future challenges will be formidable. Although most participants agreed that the April 2016 UNGASS meeting had been an important milestone in drug policy reform, there were concerns that it had diverted attention away from the important work that needed to be done, especially on harm reduction. "I think that real change will come at the local level and not at the UN," said one participant.

Other participants focused on the challenges related to dwindling resources noting that during times of economic austerity, there was less funding (and a conservative backlash against) causes such as harm reduction including methadone availability, support for recovery services, and safe injecting facilities. Several participants said that this made it especially important for organizations active in drug policy reform, which were often competing against each other for funds, to find ways of working together.

Course Director and SPP Acting Dean Julia Buxton spoke forcefully about the urgency of drug policy reform, pointing to the enormous financial and social cost and the devastating impact that the failed 'war on drugs' was having on vulnerable populations like children. She also echoed the comments of many participants who stressed the urgency – and challenge – of mainstreaming drug policy reform. "This will not happen," she said, "unless we engage with people we don't normally meet with – everyone from police and law enforcement to people working at the local level who don't normally work on drug issues." Buxton went on to observe that courses such as this one in Budapest helped to further efforts to mainstream drug policy reform.

Photo: SPP/Daniel Vegel