Drug policy reform hits a Russian roadblock at the UN

Russia takes a depressingly draconian approach to many issues, and drugs are no exception. As this Brookings Institution briefing paper says: “Drug addiction is considered a moral deficiency rather than a medical issue, which reinforces the Russian government’s predilection for a punitive approach.” This misplaced moralism has helped create a political climate in which it is acceptable to denigrate and stigmatise people involved with illicit drugs. In 2011, for example, the then speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament said that drug dealers must be "put on a par with serial killers" and incarcerated for life, ideally in forced labour camps. Facile anti-drugs rhetoric is easy to come across in any country, but Russia really takes it up a notch.

Russia’s commitment to a hardline approach at home, and its influence as a global superpower, meant it shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise to see the Russian delegation flying the flag for the war on drugs at the UN’s annual drug policy jamboree, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), which took place a couple of weeks ago. But what was surprising was the lengths they were willing to go to to stymie any attempt, however incremental, to reorient the debate toward anything that could be considered even vaguely progressive.

One comically disheartening intervention the Russians made was in negotiations over a resolution to mainstream a gender perspective into drug policies. It shouldn’t have been a particularly controversial resolution; it was essentially just saying that member states’ approaches to drugs needed to take into account the specific needs of women and girls. One sticking point for Russia, however, was the inclusion of a reference welcoming and encouraging the participation of UN Women in the debate. The Russian delegation, however, thought that was inappropriate, given the agency hadn’t historically been part of the drug policy debate at CND. But that was precisely the point of including the agency in the resolution – to bring their expertise into the debate, and begin righting the wrongs of drug policies that have been devised and implemented with hardly any regard for women. But clearly it was too radical a thought to involve the main international organisation dedicated to promoting gender equality in efforts to ensure that drug policies affect men and women equally.

The Committee of the Whole – where member states negotiate the text of CND resolutions

Another, more subtly regressive move on the part of the Russians was to insist that any mention of drug policies being based on evidence must explicitly state that it is scientific evidence that is what’s being called for. On the face of it, this seems to be either an innocuous and relatively inconsequential revision, or perhaps even a positive amendment – an affirmation of the international community’s commitment to drug policies grounded in science. But in reality, it was sneakier than that. The consensus among most observers at CND was that this was a deliberate attempt to exclude research produced by NGOs, and other forms of grey literature, which, unsurprisingly, tends to be highly critical of the kinds of drug policies that Russia and other pro-drug-war states pursue.

Russia also succeeded in watering down many resolutions, and indeed the important outcome document which will be adopted by the UN General Assembly later this month, to such an extent that most actionable language was made redundant. By incessantly caveating any progressive recommendation or call to action with the phrase “where appropriate and consistent with national legislation”, member states were effectively given license to ignore whatever they choose. The phrase actually appears, in various forms, a ridiculous 27 times in the draft UNGASS outcome document agreed at the CND. So if a recommendation makes reference to something that a member state doesn’t like and that goes against its domestic drug policy – such as the provision of naloxone, for example – then it’s under no obligation to comply with it. Russia has ensured there’s a get-out clause for every important part of the agreements that were made.

This is all the more troubling when used as a way of shirking human rights commitments that are legally binding under international law and already agreed by member states – such a right for medical treatment to be consensual.

Russia’s intransigence at CND highlights just how far we have to go before the UN debate catches up with recent real-world evolutions in drug policy, and the accompanying debate taking place among the public, media and civil society. The coming UNGASS on drugs was billed as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the terms of the drug policy debate at the international level. There will certainly be a heated debate, but from what I saw at CND, it looks like the political will for actual change just isn’t there.