Pivot Legal Society - Equality Lifts Everyone


Human Rights and Drug Policy in Budapest - Part 1

Cub reporter and Pivot lawyer Scott E. Bernstein, on location in BUDAPEST--

In case you weren't aware, there's a lot taking place this summer with Pivot's Health and Drug Policy campaign.  Katrina's on her way to AIDS2012 - the largest conference on AIDS in the world, and a forum for over 20,000 people to network and discuss world AIDS policy.   She's bringing along two posters of ours that were accepted by the conference:  one on the Insite case, and the other on the Sex Worker's litigation.  As a disease, HIV/AIDS intersects with much of our work, primarily because one of the transmission modes is through injection with shared needles used by injection drug users.  Stemming the tide of the spread of this deadly disease is a major focus of our work supporting harm reduction strategies, including needle exchange, methadone, and heroin assisted treatment.

I am on the other side of the Atlantic, spending two amazing weeks in Budapest, Hungary -  birthplace of Pivot supporter and noted addiction physician and author, Dr. Gabor Maté.  While Budapest is gloriously beautiful, I'm here working, participating in a two-week course presented by the Open Society Foundation supported Central European University:  Human Rights and Drug Policy

The course has twenty-eight participants, from countries all over the world, including Mongolia, Indonesia, Colombia, Mexico, Slovakia, Poland, Malaysia, China, Nigeria, Georgia, Brazil, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Moldova, U.S., Spain, and the U.K.  I'm the only participant from Canada.  The mix of participants includes lawyers, activists, academics, and outreach workers in the drug user community.  Interestingly, most of the countries - including Canada - deal with both drug supply/transit and drug demand issues to some extent.

The aim of the course is to "situate drug policies globally within a framework of fundamental human rights, and to assess the extent to which country and international drug policies fail to meet human rights standards."  That's a pretty ambitious goal, and after a week I realize that we're just scratching the surface of a very deep problem.  Each of the countries represented at the course has some experience (or in the case of countries with very prohibition-centred drug policy, such as in Central Asia and Eastern Europe - much experience ) with government repression of drug users' human rights.  In Canada, drug prohibition policies have directly led to criminalization of drug addiction, which (as evidenced by the prominent role it will play in the AIDS2012 Conference) is a public health issue that should be dealt with evidence-based health policies and not the criminal justice system.

Our course days for the first week were packed with prominent speakers, including Polish human rights author and professor Wiktor Osiatynski, international drug law expert, David Bewley-Taylor, Harm Reduction International's Damon Barrett,  Director of OSF's Global Drug Policy program, Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, and Péter Sárosi and Balázs Dénes from the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union

In this last week, we've had lectures and discussions about international law, human rights, and harm reduction around the world, a large public panel discussion about the effectiveness of litigation in furthering human rights globally, and took on a short field trip to one of Budapest's needle exchange services.  My big take-home learning so far was the major impact that international drug control treaties have on setting policies that infringe human rights. 

Treaties, such as the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, were intended to cut off the supply of "illicit narcotic drugs" in the world by giving governments directives and authority to attack the consumption and supply of drugs from cannabis to opium, while allowing for the medical and scientific availability of important drugs.  Just over fifty years ago, this treaty fired the first major salvo against drug users in the "War on Drugs".  It is this war that has led to so many ills across the world, including the spread of deadly disease among populations, filling the prisons with small-time drug users, the death penalty for drug users, the rise of organized crime, and environmentally and economically harmful (and largely ineffective) spraying of crops, to name just a few of the effects.  And, the drug war has cut off availability of much-needed medicines in places where they are needed the most.

My biggest question about all of this so far, is how - as a world of nations - we can allow drug control treaties to operate in a vacuum in the face of such human rights abuses by nations.  Countries, such as Russia, hide behind these treaties when denying access to proven medical treatment for people such as methadone (sound familiar, Canada???). It's Kafkaesque (to use a cliche) that one arm of the United Nations (for example, the World Health Organization or the bodies overseeing the human rights treaties) can clearly point to the urgent need for strategies to combat HIV/AIDS around the world and the medicalization of drug use, rather than a criminal/prohibition approach, while another body of the UN sticks its head in the sand and says that there is no place for harm reduction, and denounces countries (such as Canada) who take measures to save lives and minimize the spread of disease.  One side of the UN points to the mounting human rights abuses of the drug war and calls for reform, and the other says - with no credible appreciation of reality -  "we're winning the Drug War, so let's ramp it up".  Until we recognize the important human rights abuses inherent in prohibition of drugs and the impact that the drug control treaties have in normalizing human rights abuses across the world, we're doomed to failure in the fight against AIDS.

To be continued...