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Dems Suddenly Silent in Face of Controversial Obama Stand on Global Drug Policy

Official negotiations among United Nations members begin today in Vienna over a U.N. declaration to guide global drug policy for the next decade.

As we’ve written here recently, the Obama administration has come out strongly in support of needle exchange programs — a break from previous administrations that’s been welcomed by health care and human rights advocates the world over — but has also opposed “harm reduction.” The broader harm-reduction category includes clean syringe exchanges but also more controversial programs like safe injection facilities and heroin prescription programs, which some European countries have adopted in recent years with promising results.

The controversy caught the eyes of some powerful House Democrats, who wondered why the United States would choose to oppose the harm reduction provision supported by some of its closest allies, particularly since the U.N. declaration is a non-binding document.

In a Jan. 28 letter to Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations., Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), wrote, “We find it hard to understand how the U.S. delegation could object to language which would not obligate any country to adopt particular policies with which it disagrees.”

A State Department spokesperson said this month that the department has provided the lawmakers with a written response to their concerns, but as the U.N. document is set to be finalized this week without the harm reduction language, the offices of Waxman, Lee and Serrano have suddenly clammed up. Repeated calls and emails to the offices of Lee and Serrano have been met with silence, while Waxman spokeswoman Karen Lightfoot said only that the congressman is still reviewing the White House response.

Allan Clear, executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition, an advocacy group, is in Vienna watching the deliberations. He’s also writing an occasional column for The Huffington Post. The first one, which went up this morning, claims the U.S. opposition to harm reduction is “extremely short sighted and problematic.”

It puts the US in the position of sitting in judgment of successful programs being run by many countries globally; it also ignores the very successful use of harm reduction in the United States to stem the tide of overdose deaths, low threshold drug treatment and Hepatitis C treatment and care in major centers including New York City. Worst of all, it negates the sound science behind interventions like safer injection spaces or heroin prescription programs.

Clear also explains some of the politics behind the U.S. position:

Whereas the new Obama Administration is making steps to move in a more progressive human rights based direction, the groundwork for the drafting of the Political Declaration has taken place with State Department employees who took their direction from the previous administration and haven’t yet been presented with a new agenda.

For the silence from Congress, there is no similar explanation.

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