A rift between the EU and US over how to deal with global trafficking in illicit drugs is undermining international efforts to agree a new UN strategy. The confrontation has been heightened because of suggestions that the US negotiating team is pushing a hardline, Bush administration "war on drugs", in contrast to the EU position which supports "harm reduction" measures such as needle exchanges.
Talks are said to be at breaking point in Vienna where representatives have gathered to hammer out a new UN declaration in time for a signing ceremony at a drugs summit in mid-March. Negotiations, which have been going on for three months, are due to resume tomorrow with no indication of a breakthrough.
At the heart of the dispute is whether a commitment to "harm reduction" should be included in the UN declaration of intent, which is published every 10 years. In 1998 the declaration was "a drug-free world - we can do it".
EU countries, backed by Brazil and other Latin American countries, Australia and New Zealand, say even with the best of intentions the world will not be drug-free in 10 years and some commitment to tackling HIV and addiction through needle exchange programmes and methadone and other drugs should be included.
The US position, as maintained throughout the Bush years, is that such inclusion sends the wrong message and must be resisted. President Obama has already lifted the ban on federal funding for needle exchanges and is known to have a more liberal approach to the issue, but the US negotiating team is opposed to varying the "drug-free" strategies of the past. The US is backed by Russia and Japan.
Governments at the talks acknowledge that no consensus has been reached. "Negotiations are currently complex but we are hopeful that a satisfactory conclusion can be achieved," a Home Office spokesman said yesterday.
Drugs policy experts expressed concern at the stalemate. "It is troubling that, despite clear global evidence of the effectiveness of harm reduction in reducing HIV and its acceptance in every other UN body, that the US is still resisting its inclusion," said Mike Trace, chair of the International Drug Policy Consortium and former UK deputy drugs tsar. "We are sure the incoming administration will take a different view but they will have to move fast or this will be the position for the next 10 years."
Danny Kushlick of Transform, the British drugs reform charity, said talks were at a crucial stage. "The race is now on to change the instructions from US officials before the ink dries on the previous administration's line," he said. "The implications of changing the political line is enormous for those who have suffered under the US administration's refusal to support basic harm reduction measures."
The Guardian, Tuesday 3 February 2009