Side Event: Introducing the Asia-Pacific Civil Society Common Position on Drugs

Side Event: Introducing the Asia-Pacific Civil Society Common Position on Drugs

Organised by the Vienna NGO Committee, Australia, Associação de Tratamento de Toxicodependentes de Macau, IMAECSED, PYO and UNODC.

Dr. Penny Hill, Vienna NGO Committee (Moderator): Today we are excited to introduce the Asia-Pacific Civil Society Common Position on Drugs, led by the ad-hoc working group. The Common Position was produced from a process involving over 30 countries in the region. We acknowledge First Nations people joining us today. We stand in solidarity of people suffering oppression in Ukraine, and with those providing support services and documenting events. It is now that the power of civil society comes to the fore. This event will be recorded. The Common Position is online and translated into several languages from the region. An overview of the Common Position has been submitted as an NGO statement to the CND. 84 civil society organisations have signed on to the Common Position already, and sign-ons are still being accepted. Today we have an exciting array of speakers to present their work and its relevance to the Common Position.

Mirella Dummar Frahi, UNODC Civil Society Unit: Thank you Penny and Augusto for the invitation. We are hosting the CND with over 190 civil society representatives joining online and a few in person. I want to congratulate all of you for working hard in drafting this Common Position. I know that this work started in early 2021 and finalised in December 2021, then finally submitted to the CND. 62 NGOs have signed on, I’m sure more will be come. The work ahead will be interesting, and we are happy as UNODC to help if possible in bringing forward efforts to implement it. I wish you a good and fruitful session.

Penny: Thank you for the kind comments. We are happy to work with the civil society unit and hope this continues. I introduce Mr Rathore as our next speaker.

Sana Ullah Rathore, Pakistan Youth Organisation:  We started working on the Common Position in early 2021 as part of the Working Group formed in 2020. Some new members joined the Working Group afterwards. The Working Group started working on the Common Position by organising three consultations with CSOs, where representatives submitted different inputs. A few members joined the Working Group later in the year and also shared their inputs. In December we produced a final draft and shared it with our friends to invite further inputs. Today we are in a position to present the Common Position and my colleague Augusto will present a summary of its content. I congratulate my Working Group members, and thank the VNGOC Chair Jamie Bridge, Penny and Sarah Pirker for all their help.

Augusto Pereira, ARTM Macau: Dear all, first allow me to thank you very much for attending this side event, that we hope can have a significant impact on our region.

Second, I would like to share my appreciation and sincere thanks to all that had had save no efforts in contributing to this common position, and of course to my colleagues of the working group that during almost 2 years have been working on this.

It’s not easy to achieve a balance position, a common position, that satisfied all, we believe we did a very good balanced document; we didn’t take any side, we input almost all concerns, suggestions and achievements that we collect during the consultations that were send to us, if some were not input, please accept our apologies, yet, this common position will not finish today has started today.

This document incorporates the perspectives and guide the work of a wide range of drug-related NGOs from across the Asia-Pacific Region

The document seeks to help shape and guide civil society and governmental responses in the Asia-Pacific region in coming years, providing support to NGOs working in the region, creating opportunities for civil society, government agencies and regional mechanisms across the region to work together towards common goals.

This paper is a summary of the Asia-Pacific Civil Society Common Position on Drugs available to read and for NGOs to sign on to through the VNGOC website.

The Common Position seeks to capture a consensus among civil society organisations from across the Asia-Pacific region, reflecting the need for placing human rights, health, and evidence at the centre of all drug policies. The critical role of civil society organisations in the region is recognised in the document, which also briefly outlines the achievements and challenges of civil society in the region. 24 recommendations from civil society are presented in the document, issuing a call to action for Member States and multilateral bodies to work alongside civil society, in relation to:

  • Existing international commitments and treaties relating to drug policy
  • The inclusion of civil society
  • Human rights
  • Health
  • Criminal justice responses
  • Development
  • Cross-cutting issues

Throughout this document, civil society organisations whose work relates to narcotic drugs in the Asia-Pacific region commit to working with ASEAN, Member States from the region, and multilateral bodies to ensure the voice of civil society is heard in the creation of evidenced-based laws, policies, and interventions in line with regional and international treaties and declarations.

We urge Member States from the Asia-Pacific region to recognise these recommendations and work with local civil society organisations to implement the recommendations within local responses to the world drug situation.

We urge all civil society from the Asia-Pacific to read the Common Position and to host meetings with your governments and debate what can be done, what need to change, to improve.

We urge even those that somehow cannot sign the common position, to analyse the document, we are sure that many recommendations can be work and tangible.

Finally, we urge Member States to work with civil society organisations to strive to continue to overcome challenges and continue to build on our achievements to place human rights, health, and evidence at the centre of all drug policies.

Thank you

Penny Hill: To add to Augusto’s remarks, we will continue to take on feedback from CSOs as we work to implement the recommendations in the Common Position. We are impressed that a wide range of CSOs came together to work on it, and thank you for all your inputs. Our next speaker is Dr Kawal Deep Kour, who has a doctorate in social sciences from IIT Guwahati, with an experience of 14 plus years in the field of research in drugs, drug trade and prevention science. She is member of the Board, International Society for the Study of Drug Policy (ISSDP), UK and is a published author with a range of international publications of illicit drugs and related issues.

Today, Dr Kour is presenting on behalf of the South Asian Drugs and Addictions Research Council, explaining how CSO’s can be instrumental in connecting relevant institutions and the private sector and cooperate with state institutions in mobilizing community and awareness generation including advocacy for policies and practices to deal with the multi-dimensional threat of drug trafficking fueled by global proliferation of powerful communications and encryption technologies.

Dr Kawal Deep Kour, SADARC India: Viewed in context of the joint commitment of member states at UNGASS 2016 to ensure non-discriminatory access to a broad range of interventions for the management of Substance-use disorders and the emphasis on addressing the world drug problem as complementary and mutually reinforcing, the stagnation and retrogression of harm reduction interventions in India are a major cause of concern. They could critically impair and hinder accessibility to interventions that are cost-effective, proven to be people-friendly and have reduced crime rates.

Although India has made good progress with a 32% decline in new HIV infections and 54% decline in AIDS related deaths between 2007-2015 as a result of targeted interventions, the vulnerability of key populations) to HIV and co-infections and co-morbidities remain high. In 2018, the Indian Government had announced the implementation of the “test and treat” strategy in alignment with the 2015 WHO guidelines. Although harm reduction interventions have been widely accepted as a public health good, they often find themselves in conflict with drug policy approaches that criminalize, punish and stigmatize people who use drugs. The rates of incarceration for people arrested for drug use and possession for personal use have surged and compulsory detentions as a form of drug treatment or rehabilitation continue. Social and religious complexities present unique challenges to the comprehensive coverage of harm reduction in India.

I propose now to outline the challenges that inhibit access to harm reduction services in India and advocate for scaling up responses. The tone and tenor of anti-narcotics control rules and regulations in the region continue to be characterised by “zero tolerance” approaches and heavily oriented towards prevention. Harm reduction interventions are more often than not, caught in the quagmire of legal, moral, and religious sanctions considering the diversity of the country.  It is unfortunate that, despite the known risks, overcrowding in prisons and high-risk behaviour, there is little provision of harm reduction in prisons. Even if available, they may be difficult to access due to stigma and discrimination. A recent study of prisons across India highlighted that 26% of the prisoners who did not access the services meant of HIV prevention and care, did so for fear of physical violence at the hands of other prisoners. Stigma and Discrimination continue to impede access to harm reduction interventions, particularly in accessing services such as testing, surveillance and counseling as well as providing legal aid etc. Sex and Gender specific barriers discourage women who use drugs from seeking prevention and treatment of blood-borne infections and harm reduction services. Women who use drugs are particularly reluctant when it comes to seeking counseling or screening for HIV for fear of social ostracism, social exclusion, losing their employment or even the custody of their children once their drug status is made known.

It is only an informed and empowered civil society initiative that can effectively negotiate with national governments to implement international guidelines regarding implementation of harm reduction responses. The civil society organizations should continue to advocate and promote initiatives that aim at ending stigma and discrimination, policies that stress and uphold the dignity of the user as a human being and ensure that effective socio-legal protection is affordable and accessible to those who need it.  This will go a long way in the improvement in the standard of living of the key populations, in particular. The civil society initiatives must continue to work, vigorously and vociferously towards mobilizing political commitment as without sustained knowledgeable political support, necessary assistance for the expansion and coverage of harm reduction services will be challenging and complicated.

Thank you!

Penny Hill: Thank you. The specific recommendations referred to by Dr Kawal Deep included recommendation 6 on specific interventions for women, and most of the other recommendations. Our next speaker is Ramli Samad – a member of the Asia-Pacific ad-hoc Working Group from Pengasih, Malaysia. Today, Ramli will speak to how the Common Position will support his local work in regard to advocacy, as Pengasih pushes for drug law reform and to how the Common Position can help in the process of amending the Drug Law in Malaysia.

Ramli Samad, Pengasih Malaysia: Pengasih consists of community-based organisations, made up of recovering addicts. We have been working on advocating for drug law reforms, including engaging with many government organisations. Now seems to be the right time to push for reforms. This Common Position is timely for us, to utilise as guiding principles in lobbying Malaysian lawmakers to amend the drug law from a criminal response to public health response to drug use, informed by evidence. There is a need for drug laws that promote health approaches, and not a criminal approach. On prevention, treatment, rehab services and mental health, we wish to highlight that people who use drugs have valuable expertise that can be utilised and shared in shaping drug policy. The need for continuum of care for recovering persons especially in aftercare to provide support systems. We acknowledge the role of harm reduction and access to medicines, and the needs for training of policeman and funding to support ongoing efforts by civil society and communities.

Penny Hill: Thank you very much Ramli. Our next speaker is Ma Inez Feria from No Box Philippines, a civil society organisation in the Philippines that is working towards reforming drug-related policies and laws. Today, Inez will present the work of No Box as a good practice example of implementing drug-related projects in the region, and how the Common Position could be useful in implementation of their work.

Ma. Inez Feria, NoBox Philippines: A lot of the things that have been said already are shared by us too. Part of our work is also in advocating for harm reduction and responding based on the principles of harm reduction. It is not necessarily about being service specific but understanding the people who need services. In the past few years, actions have been extreme against people who use drugs. People who genuinely desire to be helpful and to respond to the needs of people in communities, even in government, have an understanding about drug use does not align with principles of harm reduction. We realised we need to step back and understand the biases of people, e.g. people would call out against the killings but then afterwards were not sure of what to call for.

There was an immediate understanding that drugs were the problem, but it often wasn’t. We worked to cultivate more nuanced understandings about drugs and their context. Having a better understanding about drugs and their context would help government officials develop more humane responses to drug issues. Drug education is key, to help people understand better. Government agencies understand better that drug treatment services need to be voluntary and evidence-based but the devil is in the details. At the core of it, it is understanding that we need to get away from a drug-free mentality as it is not only causing unintended consequences but also tying the hands of people who want to help. We can continue offering services for people even if they continue using drugs, whereas at the moment people are cut off from services and subjected to mandatory drug treatment and testing. This is very dangerous, and based on the idea that a person needs to be ‘fixed’ if they use drugs. This same idea fuels the killing of people who use drugs.

Penny Hill: Thank you Inez. We salute you for all the work that you do during these difficult times. Our next speaker is Samir Kumar Das, who is a member of the Asia-Pacific ad-hoc Working Group from the International Movement for Advancement of Education, Culture, Social and Economic Development in India.

Today, Samir planned to speak to the work of the Working Group and the issue that prevention is better than cure. He is not here but has prepared remarks which I will share now.

Samir Kumar Das, IMASCED India: Prevention is better than cure. It’s my pleasure to introduce myself as a Working Group member for Asia Pacific of UN VNGOC and is very much grateful to the Board and all other respected participants for having a chance to share my thought on behalf our Working Group. Drug use whether in Asia or any other region has two unique opposite characteristics placed in the same coin – one using as a lifesaving drug and another destroys or killing the human life by way of gradually germinating in human health and body may be termed as illicit drug. We are presently here from Asian origin wanted to introduce our new strategies / mechanism in the second harmful effect embracing our common position to make “drug free” societies. Due to failure of public support regional and national drug policies, rapid expanding illicit drug markets and drug-related harmful objects are either produced or processed from natural plant products such as opium poppy: opium, morphine, heroin and/or synthetically produced illicit drugs, such as amphetamine and finally, psychoactive pharmaceutical drugs that become illicit as a result of being diverted from licit uses or purposes leading human rights violations as a threat to state security welcomes treatment, rehabilitation, prevention, law enforcement with the ultimate object of cure & safe life. Some of the Asian Governments introducing policy reform to approach drug use as a health issue which requires medicinal purpose rather than crime and some thought prevention, treatment or cure. Illicit production, manufacture, distribution, possession and consumption of illicit drugs constitute criminal offences in most countries.

We are to travel many miles and have to cross so many milestones to enrich the touch stone of common position but different global political, economic, & social consequences creates a stumbling block to overcome the situation. Asia Pacific working Group of VNGOC leaving behind this phenomenon has a challenge with their common position to bring the drug traffickers including illicit drug marketing and production within one umbrella.

Penny Hill: Our next speaker is Emily Hughes, who leads the New Zealand Drug Foundation’s work on acute drug harm, coordinating their networks of frontline organisations that work with those experiencing the most harm. She acts as the organisation’s interface with the government-led Drug Information and Alerts Aotearoa NZ. Emily is also the Foundation’s science lead and works on our drug-checking programme.

Today, Emily will speak to the importance of a proactive multi-agency approach to drug harm that proactively invites NGO participation.

Emily Hughes, New Zealand Drug Foundation: Kia Ora Koutou

My name is Emily Hughes, and I am a Programme Lead at the New Zealand Drug Foundation. Firstly, before I start I would like to acknowledge that we stand with others expressing our solidarity with the people of Ukraine, and we are particularly concerned about those who may experience addiction or need harm reduction services, or are at risk of HIV/AIDS, during this time. We call on Russia to halt its aggression.

Today I will briefly share how the establishment of our early warning system, uniquely housed in a crown entity, with police, means the role of NGOs is paramount to its success.

For some background in 2017/18 Aotearoa New Zealand experienced a significant spike in overdose deaths after the introduction of synthetic cannabinoids AMB-FUBINACA and 5F-ADB. Māori, our indigenous population, have disproportionately shouldered the burden of harm. This highlighted gaps in the way in which widespread drug harm was addressed nationwide.

As is too often the case, civil society has a tough job to get support to address acute drug harm and overdoses. In this case the NZ Drug Foundation had to work incredibly hard to get the issues addressed, and we were able to bring about change that has had long-lasting and wider benefits.

The New Zealand Drug Foundation, proposed a model for responding to a synthetic cannabinoids’ crisis, emphasizing the importance of establishing a network of communications for identifying acute drug harm early and intervening on both national and community levels.

The strong advocacy from the NZ Drug Foundation and others encouraged the Ministry of Health to help us implement our proposal. An acute drug harm network, led by NZ Drug was established quickly. To strengthen the effort by the MoH a discretionary fund was established, earmarked for the development and implementation of grassroots community-led responses to acute drug harm from synthetic substances.

What followed was the initiation of New Zealand’s drug early warning system, DIANZ (Drug Information Alerts, NZ), AKA ‘High Alert’ and run within the National Drug Intelligence Bureau.

Uniquely, DIANZ operates within police, which allows information on drug use and harm to be gathered from sources that are otherwise inaccessible to non-government organizations (customs seizures, police reports, coroners’ data). However, understandably it also presents barriers to the engagement of people who use drugs with an EWS linked with law enforcement . NZ Drug Foundation has a special role with our network of. grassroots community-facing organisations who have been sharing meaningful information with each other – and having the government’s data also shared with them – since 2020.

Over time has been developed and refined to improve its effectiveness at preventing overdoses and acute drug harm, particularly among marginalised populations. The New Zealand Drug Foundation, Ministry of Health and DIANZ have worked to establish better ways to gather and disseminate information directly to communities. As an NGO, we act as a neutral intermediary for important drug harm information to flow to, from and between communities.

Here are some examples of how we operate:

  • When there is an acute harm incident, identified by the EWS, we support the linking-in with local agencies who may have more nuanced information. We can disseminate resources or help make resources that communities need to respond to the harm.
  • We convene the acute drug harm community of practice (explain) as well as the national new psychoactive substances steering group, both of which include MoH and DIANZ and allow for a wide network of agencies to explore emerging drug trends together
  • We support the early development of community-led responses that address harm identified by the EWS. In 2021 alone, two peer-oriented drug harm reduction programmes were launched in Wellington region and Auckland respectively to respond to increases in drug harm. Those programmes are already working.

How does this work link to the common position?:

  • Sees drug use as a public health issue and shifts the model from a law-enforcement approach to drugs to a collective, community-focused approach
  • Shifting the perspectives of police/law-enforcement to drugs and utilizing our national networks to share evidence with them on health-based approaches to drug harm that work – meaning that we are now collaborating on other things and there is willingness to do more in the harm reduction space
  • Providing a platform for the engagement of crown entities with civil society and shifting from a top-down approach to drug harm, to a more integrated approach.

And this is just naming a few…We continue to work together as a collective to better approach drug harm and to place our communities and people who use drugs at the centre of what we do. To finish, I’d lastly like to acknowledge that Māori continue to shoulder the burden of harm from synthetic cannabinoids and drug-related deaths in general. And so, we are pushing for more interventions for those impacted. These solutions will need to consider building in leadership and partnership with Māori and where possible work in a kaupapa Māori approach.

Nga Mihi Nui

Thank You

Penny Hill: Thank you Emily. To answer questions in the chat, people outside the Asia-Pacific region can sign onto the Common Position as well but will be listed separately. I would like to close the event by thanking everyone for their efforts in formulating the Common Position, and urge member states to work with CSOs to ensuring that drug policies are centred in human rights and evidence.

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