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‘Harm Reduction’ Addendum

Here’s the final chapter on the months-long controversy over the United Nations’ efforts to establish the next decade’s global drug policy guidelines.

As we noted yesterday, language adopting “harm reduction” strategies didn’t make the cut, largely because the Obama administration opposed it. But that wasn’t quite the end of the debate.

After the declaration was finalized in Vienna yesterday, Germany, on behalf of 26 countries, filed a statement saying that it will interpret the document’s reference to “support services” to include harm reduction programs — health-focused strategies for fighting drug abuse, including clean needle exchange programs and drug substitution therapies, that have drawn fire from countries (like the U.S.) with a preference for jailing addicts rather than treating them. The 25 countries supporting Germany’s statement included Australia, Bolivia, Saint Lucia, and much of Europe.

But that wasn’t all. In response to Germany’s move, the United States, along with six other nations, submitted a counter claim, arguing that Germany’s statement undermines the consensus required to adopt the larger declaration. The countries joining the United States included Russia, Japan, Cuba, Colombia, Sri Lanka and Azerbaijan.

The process has frustrated health, human rights and drug reform advocates, who have criticized the disproportionate sway that the United States had over the negotiations.

“The irony is that it wasn’t done by consensus,” Allan Clear, executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition, an advocacy group, said in a phone interview from Vienna this morning. “If it were by consensus you wouldn’t have 26 countries refuting the conclusions.”

The saga has also angered the nations supporting harm reduction, who were pushing for broader acceptance of those programs as a way to keep drug users as healthy as possible while they battle their addictions.

“Harm reduction is not about legalization of drugs; harm reduction is not permission to use drugs,” said Saint Lucia delegate Marcus Day, who also heads the Caribbean Drug and Alcohol Research Institute. “Harm reduction is engaging people in a process that leads them to a healthier lifestyle.”

The focus on law enforcement as a drug eradication strategy, Day added, has filled Caribbean prisons and caused “a high level of extra-judicial killings,” all while “the quantity of cocaine and the price of cocaine on the street have remained steady.”

Oh well, Washington. There’s always next decade.

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