01.11.2011 «Geneva could become a new centre of acknowledged excellence in all aspects of drug policy.»

Five questions for Jean-Félix Savary. The association of addiction management professionals, Groupement Romand d’Etudes des addictions (GREA), hosted a conference on «50 years of drug prohibition» on 19 October. We talked to Jean-Félix Savary, secretary general of GREA, on the background situation.

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The first UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs is 50 years old. Why has GREA organised a conference to mark this anniversary?

The current system prohibiting drugs is relatively recent. The First UN Convention dates back to 1961. The Third Convention of 1988 still called on the United States to make drug use a punishable offence. In Switzerland in the following year, the Subcommittee on Drug-related Issues set up by the Federal Narcotics Commission published a report in favour of decriminalising drug use. So the system’s controversial and – from a long-term perspective – something of an anomaly. After 50 years of practice, it’s now time to assess its efficacy. Many geo­political phenomena are indeed linked directly to the present system: wars, corruption, migration, environmental protection, rights of indigenous peoples, etc. So if all the problems are to be grasped, it’s all the more important to consider the whole issue from a certain distance.

What vision underlies the three conventions? What explains the «spirit of Vienna»?

The system laid down by the UN Conventions reflects the position taken by the member states. It clings predominantly to the traditional idea of the «drugs» phenomenon, and the problem lies with the product. If we eliminate the drug trade, we eliminate the problems associated with it at the same cost. This simple consideration can result in illusory thinking. The reality, on the other hand, has since moved on – and numerous countries have begun to look at the issue in a more differentiated manner by taking the variables of environment (context) and the individual (life history) as well as the product into account. These changes, many of which are driven by front-line players, are often difficult to enshrine in laws. The international system is only a reflection of this reality.

Which features of the Conventions do you consider to be still effective in the current situation?

The international drug trade has to be strictly regulated – that’s obvious. Therefore we absolutely have to maintain international institutions with extensive powers that enable us to regulate trading and distribution of the different psychotropic products. This task must be clearly distinguished from the ideological components that have been pegged on to it, from the «war on drugs». The international community can promote «good practice» in order to support effective responses to the different problems. The example of Switzerland shows that it’s local experience that has enabled substantial progress to be made. Countries must therefore be given more room for man­oeuvre.

In the light of ongoing developments, do you believe that changes are possible? And if so, in what time frame?

The loudest criticism today is directed at the lack of determination to address the topic in the first place. Calling something into question is already perceived as a making a «concession» on drugs. When the UN’s Political Declaration and Plan of Action on drugs was revised in 2009, the contrast between pragmatism and ideology was startling. The hard-liners won the day and the texts weren’t changed. However, the debates sparked off showed that positions had undergone marked changes. The European Union had spoken forcefully and with a «relatively uniform» voice. Numerous contributions from Southern countries denounced the havoc caused by the «war on drugs» among their populations. Building on the experience of the Latin-American commission «Drugs and Democracy», the «Global Commission on Drug Policy» founded this year also clearly demonstrates that changes are in progress. This commission is an impressive platform for international leaders across the entire political spectrum who call for a complete overhaul of the UN Convention system.

What role do you think Switzerland can play in this process?

Switzerland is a member of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) and can contribute a great deal to the ongoing discussions in the international community. Swiss diplomacy has demonstrated a strong commitment to human rights. This is another, very important aspect of drug policy. Let’s not forget that drug use is punishable by death in some 50 countries. At present, the INCB (International Narcotics Control Board) is more concerned with condemning the limited experience of decriminalisation than public executions of drug users in Asia or the spread of HIV. With Switzerland’s long experience of a drug policy based on a well documented public health approach, and with its commitment to human rights, the country enjoys the necessary credibility to move discussions forward in this field. We’re pleased that Switzerland has become more active in the last few years. Drug policy includes conflict management, good governance and development of rural areas – all fields in which Switzerland has already been highly active at the international level. Geneva, home to so many international organisations, could become a new centre of acknowledged excellence in all aspects of drug policy. It is our wish that the Confederation should support its representatives in this field, because they share the same goals as our diplomats.

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