Side event: Collaboration with civil society and governments in drug policies

Organized by Lithuania with the support of Czechia, and the Council of Europe – Pompidou Group and the Eurasian Harm Reduction Association

Full recording available here

Elena Hedoux, Senior Programme Officer of Council of Europe – Pompidou Group: The Pompidou Group recognises the importance of civil society participation as an important element of the democratic process and therefore encourages its involvement in the development and implementation of policy, programme, project and activities. The concept of civil society participation flows from the European Convention on Human Rights which guarantees the freedom of expression (article 10) and freedom of assembly and association (article 11). CSOs provide citizens with an alternative way along side of those political parties of channeling different views and securing a right in policy planning and implementation process. This also applies to the area of drug policy.

So what are the forms of cooperation? There’re four gradual level of participation, from least to most participative – information, consultation, dialogue and partnership. Now, what are the opportunities for engagement in the drug policy making process? There are different steps in policy development and implementation process and all of them offer opportunities for CSOs and public authorities to interact. When setting the agenda, CSOs channel views and positions into the process from the perspective of different collective interests of society in a way that is complementary to the political debate based on representation. In the policy drafting, CSOs provide problem identification, solutions and evidence, based on their experience and knowledge. Political decision – at this step, consultation with civil society is central to inform decision. Implementation – CSOs are important partners to ensure that the intended policy outcome will be reached. After implementation, we have monitoring…Here, CSOs play a crucial role in monitoring and assessing the outcome of the implemented policy – and monitoring results constitute the basis for needed policy reformulation.

It’s also important to mention certain challenges in setting up the cooperation. Government and public institutions have different roles and responsibilities than CSOs, and often different aims and objectives. In addition, the management, administrative and resource mobilisation also differ significantly…Drug policies have several security dimensions such as law enforcement, criminal justice system and customs. And security issues are often cited as limitations to cooperate. To overcome these challenges and barriers, it is important to see the added value in working together, accept each other’s different roles and identify common perspectives and aims. To enhance cooperation between governments and civil society in the field of drug policy and to provide the contribution towards barriers and controversies, the Pompidou Group has developed a policy paper on government interaction with civil society on drug policy issues.

Evelina Pridotkiene, Head of the Monitoring and Analysis Unit of the Drug, Tobacco, and Alcohol Control Department of Lithuania: This cooperation between civil society and governments plays a crucial role in the functioning democracy. Civil society participation in decision making process in the countries shows us the democracy level. In some member states, engagement of drug policy NGOs could be recognised as a challenge. But in Lithuania, government institutions see a lot of benefits of such collaboration. I would like to present a few experiences of this collaboration.

  • First, our experience that I would like to present is the drafting of National Agenda on Drug, Tobacco and Alcohol Control. There was a total of 6 working groups with NGO representatives in each involved in the national agenda development. This participation created possibility for discussion and negotiation of policy objectives in areas for implementation to ensure the heath, welfare and security of social demand. Also in the public consultation, about 26% of representatives were from NGOs. The structure of this agenda includes a lot on participation, treatment, harm reduction…The core principles of the national agenda are to foster human rights, public education and protection…and partnership.
  • Another experience is ‘E-platform’ with NGOs, an initiative where we could share information about what’s happening in our organisation in order to create conditions for effective collaboration and involvement of civil society.
  • Another initiative is called ‘Be Safe Lab’ which is a successful collaboration between the state, municipality, business and non-governmental sector to protect music festival visitors who experiment with psychotic substances.
  • Lastly, NGOs help the governmental institution to run the naloxone programme to help distribute naloxone kits in low threshold.

Katerina Horackova, Director of Drug Policy Department in the Government Office of the Czech Republic: The cooperation and involvement with civil society in drug policy is long-term and key approach for modern drug national policy. The main body for drug policy coordination at the governmental level is the Government Council for Drug Policy Coordination (GCDPC). This Council is responsible for drafting implementation and evaluation of national strategic documents. The coordination of drug policy is covered on the national, local and international level. The GCDPC is also responsible for fundings of drug services…and monitoring of drug situations. The key body for drug policy representing a civil society at national level is the Association of Drug NGOs. The role of the civil society is also defined in our national strategy saying ‘the representatives of the civil society are involved in the planning, implementing of addiction policy measures and activities…in the evaluation and the improvement of the quality and effectiveness of the services’. The aim of the Association is to contribute to improvement of policy planning and availability of drug related information.

For the Czech Republic, the NGOs are professional health and social institutions. They also undergo a process of certification to verify the quality of provided services and it is necessary to get the funding from the national level. The key professional associations involved in addiction policy include Society for Addictive Diseases, self-help groups, patient organisations…and so on. Civil society become a member of government council since 2007 but they are also invited as part of working groups and committees on both national and local level. There’s a special working group named Addictological Forum, open forum for professional organisations and civil society with the aim to meet regularly with government bodies to discuss current and ad hoc issues.

We officially involve civil society into decision making process because their representatives are those who see the consequences of our decision in practice. They are also closed to drug situation and understand the need of clients. They can react on draft policies and provide feedback on best practices. We also note that civil society is sometimes criticised for some aspects of their work. Due to this, it is necessary in the long-term to build understanding and trust among the state institutions and civil society and build true partnership based on active participation, contribution and involvement of civil society. Thanks to civil society involvement in implementation of drug policy. It has a direct possibility to advocate for harm reduction interventions, measures and approaches within the drug policy.

Eliza Kurcevic, Programme Manager of the Eurasian Harm Reduction Association (EHRA): First, I would like to speak about how we as association are collaborating with Lithuania government in drug policy making. We are a regional organisation so we are working in 28 different countries. However, our office is based in Lithuania so we have a great opportunity to make cooperation and action with Lithuania governmental institutions. There are few initiatives which we’re doing together, and I would call a good practice and example which we should be continued.

So the first initiative I would like to mention is ‘Be Safe Lab’. It is a beautiful collaboration of different governmental and non-governmental organisations in Lithuania which are going to music festivals and providing harm reduction services. EHRA is not officially part of this initiative; however, few years ago we asked to join one of the biggest festivals and have a spot there and provide some services e.g. drug checking. We don’t have drug checking in Lithuania but we found a way to distribute test kits to people. Together with the ‘Be Safe Lab’ initiative, we have a tent supporting festival goers at the festivals.

Another initiative was the development of the national drug, tobacco, and alcohol control, prevention programme. When we were developing that strategy, I think it was the first seed we put for a really strong cooperation for the next kind of development of the document. Last year, we had online discussions and few working groups where we discussed different kinds of experts, professionals, community members about National Agenda on Drug, Tobacco, and Alcohol which replaced the previous strategy. What I love most is the variety of stakeholders involved. It was a really different group of people with different opinions, knowledge and expertise. We had loads of hot discussions going on especially when we were discussing about drug policy.

And then cooperation before and during CND – here we are as civil society representatives and we have our governments being together and speaking about how we are working together. This is a beautiful example which I would like to ask more governments to involve civil society into the discussions. I’ll be honest that when this year’s call for CND side event just came online, we received the call from our governmental institution who asked to cooperate on the event.

We also have some non-formal discussions on some issues relevant at that moment. For example, we had informal discussions with different stakeholders about peer work and harm reduction conferences. It was always active participation from the government side in our events and also us involving and getting recommendations asking us on how to better improve things.

Tomorrow, there will be another side event similar to this one but more focusing on what challenges civil society are facing in participating in the creation of drug policies. Our colleagues will also be discussing about this report which was developed last year called Quality Standards of Civil Society Involvement in Drug Policies. The report was developed by the Civil Society Forum on Drugs, an expert group to the European Commission which is trying to build the bridges between civil society and bring the message to the EC on drug related issues. About this report – in 2020, there was a literature review on existing guidelines and recommendations on how civil society canbe meaningfully involved in the policy making process. After that analysis, this report was presented and it is showing the quality standards of civil society involvement to guide both decision makers and civil society in how to create mechanism that facilitates the building of dialogue and partnership between them.

Now I would like to focus more on the war in Ukraine and how people are managing different challenges which are happening during the war. We as EHRA are working in 29 countries in central Europe and Asia region and one of the countries which we have strong and great cooperation is Ukraine. We are working quite a lot now with partners there but also with neighboring countries. So I just want to share a bit on how the cooperation is happening during emergency situation. In Ukraine, the governmental institution are working closely with civil society on ensuring access to Opioid Substitution Treatment (OST) and Antiretroviral Therapy (ART). It’s not only about making people access the services but it’s also about developing different orders and policies which are more flexible for people to take home dosages. Before the war, people could take OST only 15 days home but now they can take for 30 days. Governmental institution and civil society are also working together in procurement policies – how to organise the supplies because it’s all finishing. There are also regular coordination calls with national, regional networks and key institutions in Ukraine. We are working in connecting governments from different countries in humanitarian support. Harm reduction services are still supported and still funded by the government with promise of continued support. Work in prisons – civil society is playing a crucial watchdog function. We have few organisations working with inmates and they are trying to analyse what are the current challenges and try to push government for action. Weekly briefing for OST patients – they asked to have a call with institutions responsible for OST in Ukraine to give a short update on the availability of OST. It’s not anymore just about civil society and governmental organisations but also informing communities.

We have amazing partners from neighboring countries of Ukraine from civil society trying to communicate with their governments and ensure free access to OST and ART, collecting humanitarian aid in cooperation with local municipalities, and advocacy for opening shelters for key affected populations. We stand with Ukraine and support our community of people who use drugs and other key affected populations in Ukraine.

Elena Hedoux, Senior Programme Officer of Council of Europe Pompidou Group: I have a question because it was interesting and inspiring to see your national cooperation as civil society and government in Lithuania. What do you think help build this effective cooperation with Lithuanian government?

  • Eliza Kurcevic, Programme Manager of the Eurasian Harm Reduction Association (EHRA): I think it’s about people. When people connect with open heart and mind, it’s much easier to make these discussions not to be filled with prejudice. Key things are to be open minded, willing to listen to each other and have trust. Sometimes we have different positions, but we’re still working toward the same goal.
  • Evelina Pridotkiene, Head of the Monitoring and Analysis Unit of the Drug, Tobacco, and Alcohol Control Department of Lithuania: I agree with Eliza that this cooperation is based on personal touch with people who are working and in our department to be open minded and understanding about what’s going on. It’s important for all people involved in drug policy to have good collaboration. It is the people who want to work together and see the benefits of this collaboration.

So as you said, it all depends on us. We are all people regardless of our work. If we open our mind and will to work together then all barriers disappear, and intensive engagement and efficient work appear all of a sudden.

In this side event, you had an opportunity to learn about different experience and good practices of civil society involvement in shaping and implementing drug policy and the benefits of this involvement. We saw that the collaborative actions between civil society and public authorities lead to more efficient and effective implementation of policies – and particularly in drug policies touching about different fields of action and aspects of concern, cross-cutting on network based civil society overcoming sectorial barriers. Thank you all for having been part of this important event.

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