This week diplomats at the United Nations in New York will adopt a document outlining the future of global drug policy, a text that may have been better in the eyes of many advocates if it weren't for one country: Russia.

22 Apr 2016

Moscow's rise as the most vocal proponent of the drug war not only affects the pace of change worldwide, it has also created a domestic HIV crisis, and coincided with allegations of corruption among top Russian drug officials.

The outcome document of the UN General Assembly's Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) was drafted in Vienna last month. There, at the UN's Commission on Narcotic Drugs, amid little media scrutiny, Russia was again able to employ the outsized influence, and the ability to meddle, that it has long enjoyed. VICE News spoke with nearly a dozen diplomats and national officials, and nearly all of them mentioned specific examples of Russian intransigence during negotiations, or alluded to the pall it cast over the consensus-based drafting process, a setup that effectively gave Russia a veto in many areas.


Central to Russia's interventions was an insistence that the words "harm reduction" not be included in the document. Since the last time the General Assembly met for a special session on drugs, in 1998 — when countries convened under the risible slogan "A Drug Free World - We Can Do It" — harm reduction methods, including needle exchange programs and opioid substitution therapies such as methadone, have become mainstream in many parts of the world, backed by countless studies showing their efficacy. Relevant UN agencies endorse the term, including the World Health Organization (WHO), which says it "strongly supports harm reduction as an evidence-based approach to HIV prevention, treatment and care for people who inject drugs."

"They postponed all negotiations about any changes in terms of effective treatment and effective intervention until the last minute... they said, 'This is too complicated, at this moment it's not acceptable,'" said one senior European drug official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the negotiations. "They deny evidence that we learned decades ago, that what you have to do is just introduce replacement therapy. They bullied everyone."

In the end, the outcome document did reference several aspects of harm reduction, including both needle exchange and substitution therapy, but the term itself was out. Conservative countries, including Russia, pushed for the inclusion of language that deferred to "national legislation" — a carveout that appears 18 times in the document — effectively giving member states the room to ignore what the document actually suggests.

Many countries will continue implementing the tenets of harm reduction regardless of the language member states choose. But for Russians themselves, Moscow's hardline drug policies have already had deadly repercussions.

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