Vancouver, British Columbia, was the scene this week of an international conference on drug policy, affiliated with the United Nations, that didn't turn out the way the UN imagined it. Organized as part of the UN's Beyond 2008 global forum to review the accomplishments and failures of the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs, the Vancouver conference sent the UN a strong message: end drug prohibition.
Attended by harm reductionists, treatment providers, prevention specialists, anti-prohibitionists and others from the US and Canada, the Vancouver forum differed greatly in tone and content from the other regional forums held so far as part of a process overseen by the Vienna NGO Committee on Narcotic Drugs, which works with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the Commission on Narcotic Drugs to incorporate the views of non-governmental organizations and civil society into the crafting of the next UNGASS drug strategy. In other regional forums, drug treatment and prevention forces dominated the conversation, as in the North American forum held last month in St. Petersburg, Florida, where groups like the Drug Free America Foundation held sway.
But in Vancouver, pioneer of the four-pillars policy (prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and law enforcement), home of the continent's only safe injection site, and ground zero for Canada's cannabis culture, it was a different story. Organizers there made sure it wasn't just another prohibitionist gathering.
"We wanted to make sure that we included absolutely everybody," said Gillian Maxwell of Keeping the Door Open: Dialogues on Drug Use, a Vancouver-based community coalition that cosponsored the forum. "In St. Petersburg, it was clear that drug reform and harm reduction people were not invited, which is a little odd. If you think about it, what do the UN treaties have to do with people involved in rolling out 12-step abstinence programs?"
Former Vancouver Mayor Philip Owen, architect of the four-pillars strategy, set the tone for the event early on. The "old-school prohibition" crowd had its say, said Owen, but now it's time for a new approach. "There are still those, in the US and in our federal government, who say drug users are criminals and should get a job, pay taxes and salute the flag," he said. But mayors, who see the problems first-hand, are calling for change, he said, pointing to the US Conference of Mayors declaration last June, where they "agreed unanimously the war on drugs is not working. Mayors are close to the issue so they actually see the drug users as people who are ill and need treatment, and they have to deal with related crime, yet it's our federal government that controls narcotics," Owen said.
"Drug-policy reform won the day because most rational people on the front lines realize that the war on drugs has been a miserable failure," Owen added. "The war on drugs is coming to an end, hopefully in my lifetime," he concluded.
Jack Cole, head of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), told the nearly 100 delegates that drug addiction should be treated as a health problem, not a law enforcement one. "We have to at least get legalization and regulation of drugs on the agenda," he said, with one eye on Vienna, where the Commission on Narcotic Drugs will meet next month to review the past decade's progress in meeting the 1998 UNGASS goals.
It was clear that the forum had reached a general opinion, if not a complete consensus, said Maxwell. "It seems the majority of the people in the room think it's impossible to prevent drug use, and, therefore, you get the war on drugs, which is a war on people," Maxwell said.
In addition to LEAP's Cole, the US contingent included representatives of reform groups including Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Common Sense for Drug Policy, and Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML, who presented the national NORML statement to the forum. In that statement, NORML said that the UN's goal of "eliminating or substantially reducing" the global supply of marijuana had failed and that "the only practicable way to realize the UN's goal of eliminating the problems illicit cannabis supply and demand is to eliminate its illicit status."
If ending the drug war was the majority position, not everyone was won over. At least two participants complained to the Georgia Strait that the conference was unbalanced.
Alcohol-Drug Education Service's Judi Lalonde told the Straight there was too much harm reduction and not enough prevention at the conference. "Representation from the groups for legalization are probably about 95%, to possibly 5% in the area of prevention," Lalonde claimed. "I'm quite disappointed with the whole process of the last few days." She preferred the St. Petersburg forum, which "allowed for a real dialogue from a balanced perspective," while Vancouver's "became a forum for lobbyists and activists."
Brian Whiteford, the delegate for DARE BC at the conference, also complained of "disproportionate representation" of pro-legalization advocates. But Whiteford also added that the forum did a "good job" of bringing people together to exchange perspectives.
The criticisms about balance aren't fair, Maxwell protested. "We invited people from all sides of the spectrum," she said. "They just didn't all come. We invited many Canadian national groups, but many didn't even reply. Yes, we had a larger proportion of reformers and harm reductionists, but that's because they weren't even invited to the other North American forum in St. Petersburg."
Maxwell pronounced the forum a success. "It was very interesting, and I was so impressed by everybody -- they were all so articulate and respectful," she summarized. "I was so impressed by the intellect and the caring that people brought to this. This was a good moment for democracy and a good moment for civil society."
At least one local newspaper disagreed. The conference provoked an angry editorial from the Province, a Vancouver tabloid daily. "Drug legalization is not the solution it's cracked up to be," the Province warned. "The pro-drug lobby masquerades as a champion of individual liberties. But behind that disguise lurks the ugly face of societal decay."
As Mahatma Gandhi once famously noted: First they ignore you, then they attack you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. The path to ending global drug prohibition is long and twisting, but events like the one in Vancouver this week are laying the groundwork -- and nobody is laughing about it now.