Written by Ruby Lawlor, Executive Director of Youth RISE

This week, Youth RISE attended pre-meetings and the High Level Segment of the 67th Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna. It’s been a privilege to contribute to the discussions and advocate for youth-centered approaches to drug policy and harm reduction programmes, and ensure the voice of young people who use drugs (YPWUD) is not left behind in this key moment in drug policy history.

On Monday and Tuesday I attended the 4th pre-CND Consultative meetings on HIV and Hepatitis Prevention, Treatment and Care with and for People Who Use Drugs, organized jointly by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), International AIDS Society (IAS), World Health Organization (WHO), the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and International Network of People who use Drugs (INPUD). 

Key United Nations Advocacy for Young People Who Use Drugs

Youth RISE was invited to speak on Monday during the Community Service Delivery session, where I had the opportunity to present key findings and recommendations from the Consultative meetings on Tailoring Harm Reduction Services to the Needs of Young People Who Use Drugs which took place in November 2023. These Youth Consultations took a similar format to the pre-CND Consultative meetings as it brought together experts from academia, civil society and UN bodies to provide the most recent, where available, research on drug use, but with a focus on young people, the impact of policies on this population, and provided insights about the realities, challenges and barriers faced YPWUD in terms of accessing basic healthcare, harm reduction and treatment services, the need for meaningful engagement of young people and YPWUD in decision making and programmes, and evidence based drug education. 

Key findings included that current policies are failing to address drug-related matters, and the most impacted are the future generations; there is a severe lack of data, a shortage of youth-friendly harm reduction practices, and the existence of challenges in accessing health services amongst YPWUD; there is a glaring need for meaningful engagement with YPWUD, who represent a key population being left behind in our pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals in policies, programmes and services; and there is an urgent need for comprehensive drug education for YPWUD, which includes not only information about prevention but also transparent, scientifically-based, life-saving resources on harm reduction. And finally, ensuring our health and human rights is paramount.

The 2 day pre-CND consultation culminated in the delivery of a statement about the key discussions and recommendations at the Opening Session of the High Level Segment in the Plenary on Thursday morning. 

On Wednesday I attended the UNODC-CSO Meeting, with Carolina Ahumada, Youth RISE’s Deputy Director and Youth Engagement Programme Lead. This meeting is organised annually by the UNODC HIV/AIDS section, in collaboration with IDPC as the Secretariat of the partnership, and consists of civil society organisations from around the world working on drug policy reform and harm reduction advocacy and delivery. UNAIDS, UNDP, the WHO, and the Global Fund also attended the meeting. During this meeting I shared the significance of Youth RISE having been invited to speak at the pre-CND consultative meetings and shared the key highlights from my presentation.

Key United Nations Advocacy for Young People Who Use Drugs

Half way through the day, member states of the Friends of HIV group joined us, chaired by Brazil, with delegates from Canada, Czechia, Australia, and Belgium to name a few in attendance alongside CSO’s to learn from us about key opportunities for supporting our networks and advocacy. I took to the floor and emphasized the need for greater opportunities for youth involvement, and promoted the newly released Paradigma Coalition Common Position on Drugs, of which we are co-authors alongside several youth-led and youth focused CSO’s focused on health and human rights in relation to drug policy and harm reduction. 

On Wednesday, Youth RISE’s High Level Communications & Advocacy Lead organised a High Level Panel Discission at the Central European University, ‘Reassessing Drug Policy Through a Human Rights Lens’. With the participation of Ruth Dreifuss (Global Commission on Drug Policy), Lynn Ruane (UNITE Parliamentarians Network for Global Health), Jean-Luc Lemahieu (UNODC), Zaved Mahmood (OHCHR) and Boyan Konstantinov (UNDP) providing insights on this topic.

Key United Nations Advocacy for Young People Who Use Drugs

The High Level Segment of the 67th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs began on Thursday and ended tonight (Friday 15th). Member states provided their input on whether we as a global community are ‘on track’ to achieving the recommendations set out in the 2019 Ministerial Declaration on Drugs and reflected on the past 5 years of policy making and developments. They provided recommendations on the way forward to 2029, with many calling for a paradigm shift towards health and human rights based drug policies. 

The Ghanian Chair opened the HLS, stressing that “the world drug issue has no boundaries” and calling member states to recognise that sustainable solutions can only be forged by multilateral collaboration and solidarity. He invited member states to not only assess but also reinvigorate our commitment to action, keeping in sight the well-being of future generations. Finally, he called for consistent evidence-based approaches based on compassion, determination and a resolute conclusion to action.

Volker Türk, the High Commissioner on Human Rights, was in attendance for the first time at the CND, and highlighted how children and young people are marginalised communities impacted by punitive policies and expressed concern over the lack of access to harm reduction and treatment. He called for a transformative shift in drug policies aligned with human rights, reinforcing OHCHR’s report recommendation for harm reduction and drug decriminalization. Also, during a side event organized by Bolivia and Colombia on rescheduling the coca leaf, Türk said “Yes, drugs kill and destroy communities, but so do punitive flawed policies.”

Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, sent a video in which he stated the Importance of keeping the future generation in mind. He highlighted the upcoming Summit of the Future. He invited member states to keep the declaration on future generations at the heart of the decision and actively engage and follow ongoing preparations for the summit. He concluded by asking Vienna and New York to create synergies and bolster SDG, promoting a future that is equitable, resilient and compassionate.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization,  sent a video message in which he called for harm reduction to prevent the harms related to non-medical use of controlled substances. Denounced inadequate access to palliative care and pain relief. Highlighted stigma and discrimination as aggravators. He said: It doesn’t have to be either or: we can protect people from the harm connected to drug use while providing access to services and substances to palliative care” He concluded by calling member states to acknowledge the need to ground responses on human rights.

In an unprecedented development, a coalition of 60 countries led by Colombia took the floor at the opening of the event to call for the reform of the international drug control system, which has remained unchanged since the height of the “war on drugs”. The joint statement sounded the alarm on the catastrophic consequences of punitive drug policies, which fuel violence, corruption and environmental devastation whilst undermining health, development and human rights.

Key United Nations Advocacy for Young People Who Use Drugs

Antony Blinken, USA,  called out countries to acknowledge how the fentanyl overdose crisis demands global cooperation and urged member states to adopt harm reduction programs. He also stressed the importance of involving civil society.

During the High Level Segment CHAMPS was introduced again, UNODC’s new initiative focusing on early prevention. Pompidou Group and WHO are collaborating on such an initiative, but there were no mentions of engagement with UNICEF or UNDP, pivotal agencies working with children and adolescents and guiding development programs.

During the Way Forward Roundtable, Charity Monareng delivered a statement on behalf of the Paradigma Coalition, presenting the key points and recommendations from our Common Position on Drugs.

Key United Nations Advocacy for Young People Who Use Drugs

We are excited for more of our members to join us next week for the regular segment of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs which takes place from 18th to 22nd March, as we continue our advocacy for the health and human rights of young people who use drugs at the United Nations. Look out for our upcoming social media updates next week! 

Youth RISE needs your support to fund the work we do for young people who use drugs. Last month, we received devastating news that our main donor has to delay our confirmed 2024 funding, meaning that we at Youth RISE cannot continue to pay for salaries and core operational costs past May. We had already spent the budgeted funds on flights to bring our members to Vienna for the United Nations 67th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs and its High Level Segment, the majority of which were non-refundable. Given the significant impact of our in person attendance last year at the CND, we decided to move forward with our plans to bring our members from 8 countries around the world. We also are using this opportunity to make governments, UN agencies and donors aware of our situation and promote our planned projects and programmes with the aim of diversifying our funding streams. Please donate through this link.