As the International Harm Reduction Association annual conference in Vancouver wound down last weekend, leading drug reformers from Canada, the US, Australia, and Europe met in a downtown meeting hall to lay the groundwork for an international movement to end the drug war by 2020. Known informally as the 2020 Group, the reformers and the organizations they represent are now agreeing to work together toward this common goal.
The year 2020 is somewhat -- but not completely -- arbitrary. That year will come just a few months after the 2018 (or 2019) meeting of the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs. While reformers hold little hope of making significant progress at the special session set for 2008 (or 2009), when the international body will ponder how close it came to its stated goal of wiping out drug use by 2008, aiming at just beyond the next special session suggests that it will be a target of serious reform efforts.
But the number also suggests that ending drug prohibition is something that can happen in the foreseeable future. As Danny Kushlick of the British reform group Transform related, the year came to him when he was in conversation with a UN official and asked him when drugs would be legalized. "Never," the official responded. "Well, what about by 2020?" Kushlick asked. "Oh, before that," the official replied, "maybe by 2015."
Among Americans attending the initial meeting were Ethan Nadelmann and Marsha Rosenbaum of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation (CJPF), Deborah Small of Break the Chains, Roger Goodman of the King County Bar Association Drug Policy Project. Dr. Alex Wodak of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation also attended, as did Europeans Danny Kushlick and Steve Rolles of the British Transform Drug Policy Foundation, Martin Tjelsma of the Transnational Institute, and Dutch psychologist and reformer Dr. Frederick Polak.
The meeting was hosted by Keeping the Door Open, a Vancouver-based harm reduction organization, and also included representatives of Vancouver and British Columbia government entities, including provincial health officers who released a report last year calling for a move to a regulated market in drugs.
"This group is about trying
to end prohibition, and we would like to get it done by 2020," said Gillian
Maxwell, head of Keeping the Door Open and host for the meeting.
"That's the vision. We have all bought into that vision and we all
agree that we want to work together to do it. But right now, we are
just in the gestation period; we still have a few things to figure out.
We are suggesting that we need to move beyond prohibition, but we haven't
yet articulated how that is going to work," she told DRCNet.
"We have three models from England, Seattle, and Vancouver, and the three groups are working together to nail this down," said Maxwell. "All three papers articulated a regulatory model, and they are all astonishingly similar given that they were written separately in different countries. There is a real synergy here. What we in the group suggested and what the three groups agreed is that they will collaborate in wrestling with these big issues."
The biggest issue is distribution, Maxwell said. "How do we distribute drugs without having some sort of corporate monopoly? Do we want the government do to it? How this would work is really a big deal. If it is not government or business or medical, what does it look like? I feel like until we have that piece of the puzzle figured out, we don't have the vehicle to move forward, but once we get that, we will be able to launch ourselves."
While the 2020 Group's membership appears elite, it is not exclusive. "This was to a certain degree a self-selected group," said the King County Bar Association's Roger Goodman. "It arose out of a lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Long Beach back in November during the Drug Policy Alliance conference, and the first question was 'Who do we know?'" Goodman told DRCNet. "This was just people who had expressed a real interest in this."
There is room for many more, Goodman said. "This will be an ever-expanding group as time goes on. Right now, we only have representation from Europe, North America, and Australia, but not from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, or South America. We decided to keep it small at first to see who we are and what we want. When we have a clear focus, something tangible to show people, then we will ask other groups 'Can you support this?'" Goodman explained. "That would include drug users," he added. "They need to be represented."
US drug reformers were enthusiastic about the group. "I think that it's valuable to build another effort at improving international cooperation in reform and to do so with an explicit sense that strategy and timetables are key tools for achieving reform," said Eric Sterling, head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "Reform can't be accomplished in any one country and reform efforts in various countries will improve the climate for reform in their neighbors," he told DRCNet.
As the 2020 Group effort gathers steam -- expect the group to be fairly quiet for the next year as it sorts itself out -- it will have to confront other issues. "We haven't figured out, for example, whether our efforts will be aimed at the UN or at individual countries," said Maxwell. "Some people say either/or, but I think it'll probably be a little bit of both."
"Every country other than the US is concerned first and foremost about the UN," said Goodman, "but we Americans tend to say the UN is irrelevant and that all we have to do in the US is make our laws more rational. It's funny how representatives from the other countries were aghast at that. It was like 'Oh, that's how a superpower thinks.'"
Similarly, said Goodman, the 2020 Group has yet to figure out how it will structure itself. "We haven't decided yet whether we will try to establish an international NGO or create a coalition of existing NGOs," he said. "We do know that we want to identify and name a new global organization that complements the international harm reduction movement, and that is the international drug law reform movement. There are still missing pieces, especially in the so-called developing world and among the drug users' groups, but we will be working on that."
"What has worked for us in Canada has been to go with a many-layered approach," said Maxwell. "We create networks and support and lay the groundwork in our community. On the international level, we don't have to bring down governments; we just have to reinvent community, first at the local level, and then connecting up internationally. We will be at this for the next decade, and hopefully not much longer."