UN Special Session on “the world drug problem” just says no . . .

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Health and human rights concerns “considered” but not confronted in UNGASS drug policy document

To leaders of global infectious disease responses and advocates of human rights, the 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on international drug policies represented an opportunity to correct a course of public health harm and failure set by a half-century “war on drugs.”

To General Assembly Member States, according to their document released last week, the special session represented an opportunity to “reiterate” and “reaffirm” approaches to policy and measures to “tackle the world drug problem and to actively promote a society free of drug abuse.” The document does not define “the world drug problem.”

The document, called “Our joint commitment to effectively addressing and countering the world drug problem,” adopted by General Assembly Member States at the session, promises intensification of “efforts to prevent and counter the illicit cultivation, production, and manufacture of . . . narcotic drugs,” while suggesting national authorities “consider” measures to reduce individual and public health harms from drug use.

For decades global health responders have highlighted disease transmission risks of needles and syringes shared by individuals who inject drugs, and emphasized the proven individual and public health benefits of programs reducing those risks through opioid substitution and supplies of sterile injecting equipment. They also have highlighted the infectious disease-fueling and health access barriers posed by current punitive drug policies that in many countries, including the United States, have led to mass incarceration and overcrowded prisons.

Making one mention in its 24 pages of the interactions between drug policies and the transmission of HIV, viral hepatitis “and other blood-borne infectious diseases,” the document suggests governments “consider, in accordance with their national  legislation and the three international drug control conventions . . . effective measures aimed at minimizing the adverse public health and social consequences of drug abuse . . .including appropriate medication-assisted therapy programmes, injecting equipment programmes . .. “

The document also suggests governments “consider reviewing” barriers to pain-relieving medicines for desperately ill patients, “within the framework of national legal systems.”

The recommendations fall far short of those urged in a recent 46-page Lancet supplement with six pages of endnotes, released in March. That report, by authors that included former U.S. President’s Plan for Emergency AIDS Relief leader and current U.N. Tuberculosis Special Envoy Dr. Eric Goosby, former Global Fund leader and now U.N. Special Envoy for HIV in Eastern Europe and Central Asia Michel Kazatchkine, and International AIDS Society President Chris Beyrer, described the individual health impacts of mass incarceration, over-crowded prisons, abuse, neglect, discrimination and health service barriers of international drug control policies. It also noted that international drug use, abuse and trafficking had flourished in the years those policies have been in place.

The document also “profoundly disappointed” members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a body that includes present and former government leaders, who have issued a series of reports on harmful impacts of drug policies, and who released a statement saying “the document sustains an unacceptable and outdated legal status quo.”


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