Summary of the 63rd Commission of Narcotic Drugs

March 13, 2020
Networks of People who Use Drugs at our CND pre-meeting

The 63rd session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs is in the books, and there is a lot to report on from the week that is of interest to the global community of people who use drugs. This summary is intended to be an overview of the major developments from the week and highlights the involvement of our community in the session. For more detailed transcripts of everything that occurred, make sure to visit the CND Blog.

Representation of People who Use Drugs

The United Nations can be a very inaccessible place for civil society, and even more so for people from our highly stigmatized community. Despite these limitations, we were proud to have had a strong presence at CND this year. Nearly twenty representatives from EuroNPUD, ENPUD, AfricaNPUD, SANPUD, TANPUD, INWUD, and LANPUD were present during this year’s CND, as well as three members of INPUD’s secretariat. Additionally, members of the Youth RISE network joined our capacity building event before CND and our meeting with the UNODC at the end of the week, bringing a much-needed youth perspective to our advocacy efforts and strategy

Pre-CND Drug User Capacity Building Training

On the Saturday before CND we held a day long capacity building training for all the national and regional representatives present. This was an opportunity to strategize for the week ahead by reviewing the CND schedule, picking out opportunities for engagement, mapping out country delegations we could influence, and aligning our message to most effectively advocate for the needs of our community. We were also joined by Jamie Bridge, chair of the Vienna NGO Committee on Drugs and part of the IDPC Secretariat, who gave us a 101 overview of CND and the specific discussions items up for debate this year. This meeting helped set the tone for our delegation over the rest of the week, as we resolved to do whatever possible to get recognition from member states about the importance of includning people who use drugs in harm reduction interventions and overall drug policy discourse.

Communities at the Center Side Event

This side event was one of the highlights of our week, as it presented an opportunity for members of our community to state the importance of our involvement and leadership in harm reduction interventions. INPUD’s Technical Consultant Mick Matthews had one of the highlight quotes of CND:

“Stop punishing us, criminalizing us, stigmatizing us and take benefit of our experience using drugs. Have the humility to accept that you are not the experts; we are! It’s basic, HIV prevention needs community of people who use drugs' mobilization.”

Happy Assan from the Tanzanian Network of People who Use Drugs also spoke on the side event and discussed how treating people who use drugs like children who have no agency pushes them away from seeking harm reduction services. Monica Ciupagea from the UNODC’s HIV branch recognized the importance of involving people who use drugs in direct service by stating that they are the experts, and as such should be involved in the design of programmes. To have our message heard and acknowledged like this was very encouraging. CND can be an extremely stigmatizing environment for people in our community, and having a side event where we could call for our inclusion and agency without censorship was immensely powerful.

Responding to the WHO Treatment Standards

Before CND we had a chance to review the latest draft of the WHO’s International Standards for the Treatment of Drug Use Disorders, which we had previously submitted recommendations on to be considered. Overall, we were disappointed with the standards as presented to us during CND, for several reasons ranging from the continuous use of stigmatizing language, to promoting an abstinence-only ultimatum on recovery, and for promoting the idea forced treatment is a reasonable alternative to incarceration. They also do not acknowledge the important role people who use drugs are and should be playing in harm reduction-based recovery initiatives. The standards seem to group all people who use drugs as either criminals or patients rather, an unacceptable categorization of our community. During a side event with the WHO and UNODC on the standards, Angela McBride of the South African Network of People who Use Drugs stated our criticisms of the standards for falling short of what is necessary to provide people using drugs with the highest attainable standard of health, declaring emphatically that “I don’t need to be treated different just because I put a substance in my body.” We also had a chance to address the standards to the UNODC during our civil society meeting at the end of the week, where we once again reiterated our concerns.

UNODC Informal Dialogue

The new Executive Director of the UNODC, Ghada Fathi Waly, was expected to be available for an hour on Wednesday to answer questions from members of civil society. Unfortunately, Ms. Waly was unable to attend this informal dialogue. While her schedule was imaginably very hectic during the week, it was nonetheless disappointing that she was absent during the only time scheduled for her to meet with civil society during CND. The dialogue still carried on as planned with other members of the UNODC’s leadership answering questions. Overall the responses were very disappointing, as they either reiterated things we already knew, rejected certain ideas, or stated nothing of real substance. Mat Southwell of EuroNPUD got to ask a question regarding criminalization as a barrier to the efforts of people who use drugs to respond to and develop harm reduction responses, and whether the UNODC was doing anything to ensure this barrier was being broken down. The response was very weak; the UNODC reiterated their position that the drug conventions provide a pathway for decriminalization of people who use drugs but didn’t provide any information as to how they are working to make member states implement this policy. They furthermore did not acknowledge the work already being done by people who use drugs in harm reduction and treatment.

Outcome of Resolutions

There were only five resolutions at CND this year, fewer than normal. The most relevant and discussed resolutions were L3 (sponsored by Australia, Croatia, Georgia, Honduras, Mexico, New Zealand, and Norway) on improving the collection of reliable data to inform evidence-based responses to drug related issues and L5 (sponsored by Russia, Egypt, Nigeria and Turkmenistan) which called for the inclusion of youth in drug use prevention efforts. INPUD submitted recommendations to several member states on the language of L3, expressing concerns we had about the confidentiality of collected data on key populations, particularly biometric data. Unfortunately the exact wording we suggested was not included in the final draft, but it did contain a provision about the challenges of collecting data which may have been influenced by our concerns. On L5, the Paradigma global youth coalition published a response criticizing the resolution for failing to meaningfully engage with young people who use drugs and for promoting an abstinence-only framework on all drug policy. The coalition called out the resolution for what it was; an attempt to invoke the goal of protecting young people as a means to push an abstinence-based agenda at CND.

Additional Side Event Participation

A few other members of our delegation had the opportunity to speak on side events during the week:

  • David Subeliani of ENPUD discussed harm reduction with New Psychoactive Substances in the EECA region, where he spoke about the research project he and several fellow Georgian researchers completed in 2018 to better understand the reality of NPS for the people who use them. David also spoke about the need to adapt current harm reduction services to the needs of people who use drugs and to also ensure critical mental health services are in place to address the needs related to the excessive use of these substances.
  • Kassim Nyuni of AfricanPUD spoke on a side event on East African regional policy on prevention, management, and control of substances. He used the opportunity to emphasize the importance of meaningfully engaging national drug user networks when developing regional guidelines or other documents.
  • INPUD’s Executive Director, Judy Chang, spoke on a side event discussing achieving gender equality in preventing HIV transmission. She talked about the lack of health services for women who do not feel comfortably disclosing their drug using status, and the risk of violence from law enforcement.
  • Members of the Paradigma youth coalition, representing YouthRISE, SSDP, CSSDP, and YODA, held a side event discussing the importance of meaningful youth inclusion in all drug-related interventions. In particular they highlighted the failure of the UNODC and other agencies to amplify the voices of young people who use drugs, and called out the general tokenization of youth voices to push an abstinence-based message.

UNODC CSO Group Meeting

Our final day of CND was spent in an all-day meeting with members from the UNODC and several of our other civil society allies. During this meeting we had the opportunity to discuss areas of collaboration and suggested which countries we think should be prioritized in UNODC efforts moving forward. We were also able to express our dissatisfaction over the treatment standards, meaningful inclusion of people who use drugs at CND, and other concerns which arose throughout the week. This was a much more intimate setting than the informal dialogue earlier in the week and provided a space

Cannabis Rescheduling

Unfortunately, before the CND even started, we were informed through our civil society allies that the long-anticipated vote to reschedule cannabis would be delayed. This was confirmed during the second day as the Commission moved the vote to the intersessional meeting in December. While this was disappointing it was also somewhat expected, as progress tends to move slowly at the UN due to the interference of more regressive states such as Russia. Nevertheless, the WHO recommendation to reschedule cannabis was discussed by many member states, and it’s clear that at some point the CND will have to buckle down and vote.

Final Remarks

CND is always a frustrating event to attend for people who use drugs. We have to spend all week hearing people in positions of power tokenize our experience while simultaneously denying our agency and ability to meaningfully engage in these discussions. Our work on the ground is ignored and our lived experience is revised to fit a narrative rather than taken as a serious consideration for change. Despite all of this, this week should be viewed as a success. We managed to bring a diverse and impactful delegation to the meeting which did not stay silent as many member states would prefer. We actively sought opportunities to take back control over our own narrative. We did not shy away from expressing our discontent around the global drug regime which is causing our friends, family, and peers so much harm. At the end of the day we did as good of a job as we could of bringing the diverse experience of people who use drugs to CND. We will continue to put pressure on the CND, UNODC, WHO, member states, and all other stakeholders to take our lived experience seriously and respect our autonomy.