Edited by Carolina Ahumada

The week of April 12 to 16, the 64th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs organized by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) was held in Vienna, Austria both in person and online due to the COVID19 pandemic. The 64th session brings together around 1400 participants from 128 countries, 19 intergovernmental organizations and 72 non-governmental organizations and will address various issues related to drug policies in the world. At the same time, 110 side events will be held virtually throughout the week.

This session was held in the context of the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the 50th anniversary of the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, which, together with the 1988 Convention, constitute the cornerstone of the international drug control system. 

Those of us who are part of YouthRISE were attentive to the debates and presentations that were made throughout that week and also, we attended numerous side events. We vlogged each day’s highlights on our youtube channel.

In this blog we will talk about 2 side events that we consider relevant or that illustrate the situation regarding the drug issue in the Latin American region. Those events are: Shifting the needle The Impact of Global Drug Policy on Women and The impacts of Covid-19 on Young People’s Drug Use. We also highly recommend the events Legal regulation through a Development Lens, which explains the cannabis regulation processes in Mexico and the bill for the regulation of the cocaine market in Colombia, and Adult drug use and regulation: the future of drug policies, an event where Carl Hart’s book, Drug use for grown ups. Chasing liberty in the land of fear, is presented and a call is made to come out of the psychoactive closet in order to recognize ourselves as people who use drugs who are functional and who lead a normal life, responding to the daily demands of the life of someone who studies, works, raises a family, etc.

Shifting the Needle: The Impact of Global Drug Policy on Women.

  • Written by Ailish Brennan.

Shifting the Needle: The Impact of Global Drug Policy on Women is a book published in 2019 by Emerald Publishing and edited by Julia Buxton, Giavana Margo, and Lona Burger and was the topic of a side-event at this year’s CND. The book is available to buy at Emerald Publishing and it is also available to read as a free PDF. The side-event itself is available to watch back in Spanish here. The book, and the side-event, discuss how women, in all of their diversity, are impacted by drug policy. 

The side-event, hosted by Penal Reform International and co-hosted by CELS, Dejusticia, International Drug Policy Consortium, Thailand Institute of Justice and Washington Office on Latin America, included presentations from writers of various chapters of the book. It began with opening remarks from Elizabeth Broderick, the UN Special Rapporteur on Discrimination Against Women and Girls, who discussed the difficulties faced in centering the issues facing women in the global drug policy debate. The issues facing women in drug use are diverse and they often face discrimination and disproportionately harsh penalties as a result of drug-related crimes. They engage in drug related crime in ways that are different to men and for reasons that are different to men, often as a result of influence or coercion from men in their lives, while the legal system often makes moral judgements on them resulting in this harsher sentencing.

Isabel Pereira-Arana of Dejusticia spoke next about the chapter she wrote in conjunction with Lucía Ramírez about women farming Coca in Colombia and the impact of drug policies on them. The presentation began with the role of women in the Coca farms, showing that women often fulfill many functions, both in the industry but also in the community as a whole. Women are involved in all stages of cultivation, including to make food for the workers, processing the crops, and engaging in the trade itself. However, they also fulfill significant roles within the community and within the family, bearing the responsibility of many tasks in all three areas of their lives. The women viewed the Coca trade as a very positive influence in their lives, as it provides them with a livelihood and money to support themselves and their families. On the other hand, they viewed the state as a very destructive factor, which conjures up images of the army invading their village and destroying the crops, or the spraying of glyphosate over their village from planes.

Dasha Matyushina-Ocheret, a consultant with UNAIDS who discussed barriers to accessing healthcare for women who use drugs in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA) region and presented some stark findings for the situation in the region. Prevalence of HIV among people who inject drugs is high – in Estonia, 61% of women who inject drugs are living with HIV compared with the (also extremely high) 48% of men. In many countries, the Soviet legacy can be seen in the form of “drug registries”, a system still in place from the Soviet era where people who use drugs must enter a registry in order to access services. This, of course, presents a massive barrier for women accessing services as many fear they will lose custody rights of their child, among other things, if they are on this registry. One woman was quoted as saying “automatically I am a dysfunctional mother because I am on the drug registry”. There is much work to be done in the region (and across the world) to improve access to services for women, especially if we are to reach the 2030 goal of ending AIDS.

Next we heard from Chontit Chuenurah of the Thailand Institute of Justice, who co-wrote a chapter along with Ukrit Sornprohm, focusing on women in prisons in Southeast Asia, specifically within the context of the Bangkok Rules. The Philippines and Thailand have two of the highest rates of prison overcrowding in the world, driven primarily by harsh drug policies, with 80% of all people in Thai prisons being there for drug offences. As a result of the harsh approach to drug policy, mitigating factors are not considered in drug convictions. This leads to women facing harsh sentences for drug trafficking without consideration for the circumstances they were in, potentially involuntarily. Chontit discussed the importance of taking into consideration gender vulnerability factors and the inequalities that may have led them to this point. We also must continue to work to implement the Bangkok Rules, including to promote non-custodial measures especially for low-level drug offences. There is also a need to involve a number of stakeholders, including law students and prosecutors, in the implementation of the Bangkok Rules, rather than focusing on improving the situation within prisons.

Finally, Monica Marginet Flinch of Metzineres in Barcelona spoke much more personally about her own experiences as a woman who uses drugs and how she has been impacted by the policies being discussed and implemented at CND. She has been using drugs since she was 17 and was arrested and imprisoned for 12 years. This imprisonment resulted in many health issues, and upon her release she was unprepared for life outside of prison. She had no access to the necessary services and began taking heroin. Her life was changed when she managed to access an apartment that was reserved for women with prior convictions and it was there that she started studying and got her degree. Together with other women with similar experiences, they eventually came together to create a support group for women recently released from prison in order to fill the gaps she experienced when she was released. They created the organization Metzineres and are continuing their work with vulnerable womxn who use drugs, providing a safe space for them free from stigma and discrimination.

The side-event was an extremely important look at the issues facing women who use drugs, issues which are often systematically overlooked in policy discussions. Women who use drugs and women who are involved in the drug trade face many issues similar to those of men, but they face a myriad of additional problems specific to them as women, whether that be the added stigma that comes with being a woman, or additional societal pressures to support a family and often a community. It is great to have such discussions in a forum like CND, but as Elizabeth Broderick said in her opening remarks ‘putting women on the agenda of global drug policy is still at an early stage of what will likely be a long journey’.

The impacts of Covid-19 on People’s Drug Use.

  • Notes in Spanish by Humberto Rotondo.

This was the side event organized by Students for a Sensible Drug Policy together with YouthRISE. Only one side event carried out by young people and for young people. This event dealt with the impacts of the COVID 19 pandemic on drug use among young people. Representatives from SSDP UK, YouthRISE, Intercambios Asociación Civil and SANPUD (South African Network of People who Use Drugs) participated.

Dasha Anderson’s participation, UK

On 12/11/2020, a nationwide survey was carried out, covering 1080 students who use drugs, in order to detect changes in their consumption pattern due to the quarantine measures applied during the pandemic.

Findings: i) Most used drugs: cannabis; ketamine; cocaine; mdma and noos (nootropics, or commonly called smart drugs. ii) Counterintuitively, there was an increase in the use of party drugs. iii) Despite the restrictions, 78% of the respondents stated that it was easy to obtain their drugs and 37% of them reported buying their drugs online. iv) Regarding mental health, on average the respondents indicated moderate levels of stress, anxiety and depression. Of those surveyed, only 24% received or were about to receive mental health treatment. v) Main reasons for consumption: Boredom 27%; escape from reality 17%; relieve symptoms of depression 17%. vi) 40% of respondents feel they have more reasons to use drugs due to the pandemic. vii) Only 20% of those surveyed had access to harm reduction information on illicit drugs.

What did SSDP do to these results?

The example of Durham: The SSDP Durham chapter carried out a series of measures and activities: i) they put together a newsletter focused on relevant information for people who use drugs in times of pandemic. ii) Flyer in pubs. iii) They created a harm reduction and Covid-19 product, in pdf format. iv) Delivery of drug test kits. v) Campaign for the responsible consumption of alcohol in universities.

In the UK, there is a regrettable lack of information-based harm reduction campaigns.

Ailish Brennan’s participation, Ireland:

She commented on YouthRISE’s response to the pandemic. Being such an international organization, and therefore so virtual, we adapted quite well to the pandemic, even though some organizations of our members had more difficulties. There was funding for assistance and prevention of Covid-19 under the Small Grants program.

Argentina: Intercambios Civil Association, through its Project of Attention in Parties (PAF! Proyecto de Atención en Fiestas), carried out harm reduction interventions in party contexts, initiating conversations in strategic places where users congregate in order to educate them about harm reduction and care against to Covid-19. Kits containing protective equipment and other harm reduction materials were also delivered.

Pakistan: Led by the Idala Welfare Organization, a series of harm reduction and drug policy reform workshops were held, as well as direct assistance. These activities took place in three rural towns, where they had never been before. Despite the initial skepticism of the residents due to their distrust in the State, the residents ended up satisfied with the interventions.

Nepal: A direct assistance effort was organized, and the creation of a free pantry for young people who use drugs. This action was carried out in two human settlements in Kathmandu, reaching 60 beneficiaries. Neighborhood organizations and drug users received harm reduction training for the first time.

While direct assistance is not YouthRISE’s focus, doing so in the face of the pandemic was crucial.

Carolina Ahumada’s participation, Argentina:

The Argentine Government, to avoid the health collapse and exponential increase in cases in  the first wave of COVID19 in 2020, decreed a strict quarantine from the end of March to the end of August, which caused fatigue and non-compliance with isolation measures from people.

Faced with this situation, Intercambios Civil Association, its Party Attention Project (PAF!), with the support of YouthRISE, carried out a study to verify the consumption patterns of people who use drugs in Argentina, in the context of the pandemic.

Study focus: demonstrate the existence / increase of stigma around young people who use drugs, with a focus on three intersections: stigma, use, and the substances themselves.

Information was collected in two ways, a quantitative online survey with more than two thousand people surveyed during 5 months, data collection through social media; and a snowball sampling with a self-administered online questionnaire. In the first strategy, the frequency and use of psychoactive substances in isolation was measured and descriptions of recreational drug use were sought and these new habits were compared with those prior to the pandemic. The study yielded a clear result: a reduction in overall consumption due to the lack of party settings. 66 people participated in the second strategy, where 8 thematic axes were evaluated: i) state of mind; ii) types of drug used; iii) effects of drug use; iv) dose and quantity management; v) problems / conflicts when acquiring drugs; vi) ways to acquire them; vii) prices; viii) indirect prevalence. You can check the final report here (in spanish only).

What was done with this information ?: The social media strategy was adjusted, new interventions were planned and materials specially designed for the pandemic context were created.

MJ Stowe participation, South Africa:

A series of surveys of drug dealers in South Africa were conducted to find out changes in their behavior patterns in the face of the pandemic, and how it affected their supply chains and markets.

Survey dimension: Nine cities in South Africa, where questions were asked regarding the different types of drugs for sale, quantities, types of customers, and the impact of the pandemic on their operations. The survey ended up being broad, encompassing not just dealers but wholesalers as well. In total, 103 heroin, 20 methamphetamine and 30 cocaine / crack dealers were interviewed.

Of the 171 dealers interviewed, 92% identified themselves as men and 8% as women. The quantities sold on average are 100 g per week of heroin, 42g of cocaine and 50g of methamphetamine. Their sales were down by two thirds (2/3).

Conclusions: Although the survey is relatively small, it serves as an important basis for future research, having established important connections. It is time to include dealers in drug policies. Reduced sales and supply chain disruption is likely to be temporary, tied to quarantine and curfew measures from the pandemic.

This CND session was the first for some of our IWGs, like Anami Michael, MJ Stowe and Florencia Manns-Fuenzalida. In their own words:

“Session 64 of CND was my first CND to attend and I was honored attending as a youth rise IWG. The participation of Young people challenging negative stereotypes of young people; Young people mobilizing and expressing their opinions on different diverse issues from around the globe and having these opinions considered in decisions that affect them was my highlight reel. The conference was outstanding, mind opening and the insights gained exceeded my expectations despite it being hosted virtually”.

Anami Michael.

“Attending the 64th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs was a first for me and with the hybrid format allowing for online participation, I was exposed to a variety of sessions which was relevant to the areas of work I’m currently involved in. I found value in the range of diverse side events, which were not only informative but allowed me to establish new connections and relationships. While the online format made CND possible this year, being digital also had several drawbacks”.

MJ Stowe.

“I have just joined the Youth RISE IWG and from minute one, I have been thrilled.  I was given the opportunity to go to my first CND and it was an experience that I definitely want to live again. However, not through the screens or online format, since the most important part of this kind of meeting is lost: sharing ideas, opinions, experiences and meeting people who have been doing this for a long time. Even so, I am pleasantly surprised. Both the organisation and communication between YR members, as well as the level of knowledge about drug policy has motivated me even more to engage in drug policy advocacy”.

Florencia Manns Fuenzalida.