Home » Side event: Side Event: Drugs and Elections – How to Advance Drug Policy Reform

Side event: Side Event: Drugs and Elections – How to Advance Drug Policy Reform

Organised by the Open Society Foundations

Matthew Wilson, OSF (Moderator): Thank you so much for joining this OSF-sponsored side event at the 65th session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs. I am very privileged to welcome this outstanding panel: the former President of Colombia and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Juan Manuel Santos; Nurul Izzah Anwar, a Member of Parliament from Malaysia; and former Mayor of Ithaca (New York), Svante Myrick. First, we will hear opening comments from OSF President Mark Malloch-Brown.

Mark Malloch-Brown, OSF President: It is a real pleasure to be listening to such an extraordinary panel today – three individuals who really grappled with this issue in their political lives. Whether it is Colombia, Malaysia or New York, each of the speakers really do represent the kind of political courage to take a stand for drug policy reform in very different contexts and on very different issues. But in each, they’re dealing with an electorate and with public opinion, in their countries which are always ready to jump on the drug issue for easy political advantage and leave very little space for enlightened policy. And so we’ve seen drug policies, in the hands of the wrong kind of political leaders, being used to target minorities and the poor, to silence dissent, and to justify and unleash security forces from appropriate controls of the rule of law. And to take a very contemporary event that we’re all watching, I think this may be what is going on in Ukraine. Part of President Putin of Russia’s case for the attack against Ukraine was not only to call them Nazis, but also drug addicts – somehow dealing with that reference to associate them with crime and depravity, and to call on a huge wall of stigma to delegitimize and dehumanize both at home and abroad. And it isn’t a new tactic in Russia, where we have worked for many years on these issues in the jails and elsewhere in Russian society. It’s not surprising that there’s been a very high level of HIV because of the lack of honesty and dealing openly and forthrightly with issues of drug treatment. Or take the example of the Philippines, a country I know well, where President Duterte has killed at least 4,000 – some estimates go as high as 30,000 people – and arrested more than 300,000. He has used this drug paranoia very central to his populist campaign, to really crush dissent and restrain a free and open media. And we’ve seen in Brazil where President Bolsonaro has invested heavily on the war on drugs. As you know, again, part of a populist political campaign. So drug reform, in many ways, is a bulwark of democracy and enlightened, civil, engaged debate about the right kind of drug policies to protect users and try and secure space for them inside the law, not outside. It’s something which needs brave politicians to stand up for and speak up for, because this issue of winning around the public is not an easy one. It’s a much easier default option to just speak against drug users, to push them into the corner rather than bring them into society. And of course, at election time when political passions are high, and there’s often not much space for complexity of argument. That’s when one sees drug policy taken advantage of by the politicians who wish to do that. So I salute our brave panellists for the stand and leadership they’ve shown, and I look forward to them sharing their lessons with us.

Matthew Wilson, OSF (Moderator): President Santos, it’s really an honour to speak with you. In 2016, your administration signed a peace accord with the FARC – the oldest insurgency in the Western Hemisphere. For the first time in history, a peace agreement included an entire chapter on drug related issues and made a serious attempt to prioritize rural development and public health approaches over law enforcement. Throughout that, and still today, there’s a fierce political opposition actively resisting changing course on drug policy. What did you learn from that period? And as a President, how does one balance a progressive vision with a viable political platform?

Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia: First of all, thank you to the Open Society because they have been on this issue for a long time. I also congratulate Mark Malloch-Brown on becoming the head of Open Society Foundations. We have worked together for some time, externally. And thank you for continuing to grapple this issue because it’s so important in my case and where I come from – probably the country that has suffered the most in the so called ‘war on drugs’ that was declared more than 50 years ago. I think that no other country has lost so many leaders, or has made such sacrifices in this war. And we are still the number one exporter of cocaine to world markets. The drug issue remains important, and my own experience forced me to evolve from having a very hard-line punishment and pro-prohibition stance, to what I feel today: utterly convinced that if we don’t legalize, we will never be able to control. And the first thing that we must always repeat every time we talk about this issue, is that nobody is in favour of the use of drugs, we are simply wanting to try to control it. And among many evils, choose the lesser evil, as was the case when I became President. I had already been Minister of Defence, and probably the person in the world who had eradicated more coca plants, who had sprayed more coca plants, and extradited more drug traffickers to the United States than any other country in the world. However, I was convinced that this was not working, and so I tried to change that policy. And at the same time, I started the peace process. Strangely enough, in both initiatives, I was warned that they are very politically costly. They say, ‘you were elected as a war hero’, and they sit you down with adversaries to negotiate peace. Your political adversaries will then slaughter you and you will lose your political capital, but it is the only way to achieve peace. I said, well, that’s what I want, and it happened. My political capital went down but I continued, and we achieve peace. It is the same with the issue of drugs. I was told not to speak about it as President, as it is very unpopular. But I said it’s the only way they will start making the necessary reforms. And I started to talk about it, and I was attacked viciously. I remember going to the streets and some mothers say to me: ‘why do you want to poison our kids?’, ‘why do you want to stimulate drug consumption?’. So I had to make a lot of meetings to talk with these mothers, and I asked them: if you have a daughter or son consuming drugs, would you prefer that she went to an institution that would help her with the problem or to go to jail? And they said there is no institution that would help her with her problem. So I said that’s exactly what I am trying to do – to make this a public health issue and have another approach, because prohibition helps only the mafia and produces a lot of money to finance violence. And then all of them said, ‘Mr President, why did you not explain this before?’. This taught me a lesson. It’s so important to insist on trying to explain why this is the correct policy. There is enormous amount of evidence, and we have to insist because this is one of the issues where populist positions enter, and it is so easy to stigmatize the position of regulating drugs – and so easy and so popular to take the hard-line stand. The prohibitionist stand is very popular. So, politically, it’s very sensitive, very difficult. But what I have learned is that you need to persevere and explain and explain many, many times. Like with any political message, you need to repeat it 1,000 or even 10,000 times for people to start hearing. In my case, we were able to convince not only many people in my country, but the whole of the Latin American continent and the whole of the Americas. With President Obama, we convened a session of the OAS [Organization of American States] to ask for a Special Session of the UN to discuss this problem – and this was held in 2016. There, we encountered a tremendous opposition from China, from Russia, from the Middle Eastern countries. And we advanced, albeit a little, in the world and the UN stand on this issue. We must persevere because the problem right now is worse in our region, and I think in the whole world, than it was five or fifteen years ago. The opioid crisis in the US, for example, is much, much bigger than it was seven years ago. So it’s a matter of being like a teacher – explain until people understand and there is a tremendous amount of evidence to be able to try to convey the message. Again, this becomes very political. And there you have to also persevere. We are right now in elections. Th current Government, which succeeded me, went backwards because it was a very populist government when the prohibitionist stand was assumed. But now the government is very unpopular, and many of the candidates for the first time are daring to discuss the issue in the campaign. Before, nobody would even dare to do this. Now, they are taking a stand. I think this is a big step forward. And this is what we need to maintain in order to change things. I am optimistic, simply because the prohibitionist position has been demonstrated not to work – so in the end, there will be a change politically, as we are seeing in the US, in Europe and some countries in Latin America, although not so much in in Asia, but I think we need to persevere.

Matthew Wilson, OSF (Moderator): President Santos, thank you so much. We’ve just seen a new Congress elected in Colombia, and the Presidential election looms in May. What is your anticipation that some new coalitions can be formed in this Congress to advance policy reforms? What do you think that advocates and politicians need to be doing right now, in order to secure some of those reforms in the short-term?

Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia: The new Congress is clearly more progressive. The progressive group doesn’t have an overall majority, but it’s much bigger. The ones that were very against any change of hard-line policies will defeat it, but I am certain that this will be a very important issue in the next Congress. And I think that we need to continue to give many of the members of the new Congress the evidence and the information. Because when they have the evidence, and they have the information, they understand it and they become enthusiastic. So this is what I think we should do, not only in Colombia but all around the world. I am now a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policies, and we have worked with the Open Society Foundations for many years. We are trying to portray this and I think those types of messages need to be multiplied. This is the only way to proceed.

Matthew Wilson, OSF (Moderator): Nurul Izzah, I have followed your voice over the past few years, particularly your advocacy against the death penalty and around the case of Muhammad Lukman. So it’s a pleasure to speak with you and thank you so much for being here. My first question is really trying to think about Malaysia. It seemed poised several years ago to really make some advances on drug policy reform. But since then, there have been several political transitions and it appears that the pathway for reform is less linear. How do you think momentum for reform can be rebuilt, and cross-party support for drug policy reform strengthened, given the volatility of Malaysian politics today?

Nurul Izzah Anwar, Malaysia: I think you have rightly pointed out the key problem affecting Malaysia when it comes to consistent reforms and policy: we’ve seen three Prime Ministers over the course of three years. Before the pandemic until today, you see a worsening of drug problems and more people are left behind in prisons. In Malaysian prisons, 60% of those who are behind bars are there just due to minor drug charges. So I think it’s very crucial to understand what are the key determinants in ensuring that we can salvage the reform agenda. We need to have mechanisms such as a legislative or parliamentary bi-partisan set-ups which will stand the test of political upheaval: one of which is an All-Party Parliamentary Group on the reforms of prisons and places of detention, which I am a member of, and which is chaired by a member from the ruling party. I come from the opposition, but because everyone understands the need to support and bring forth reforms (whether it’s prison reforms or across the criminal justice system), it helps us further the cause. Now, does this mean it’s enough? I don’t think so. Secondly, we have faced many challenges, but one of the key things is really engaging with stakeholders, one of which is the Malaysian prison department or prison headquarters. I’ve actually engaged with the prison headquarters across four Prime Ministers in Malaysia, and even when my father was detained, but the issue is that the prison department has actually been very supportive of the agenda. So knowing which stakeholders across the spectrum are in support of such an agenda will help push things along. They have a clear blueprint, they want to support harm reduction, which is also inclusive of reform of drug laws. But how do we make sure that we include the different reps from the Attorney General’s chambers, from the prison department, the civil servants from the relative ministries, including Home Affairs, who can be the spokesperson, even as ministers change? I think that’s one of the key things. President Santos is completely right, and I am marvelling at the fact of a Minister of Defence taking the position to understand that it must be evidence that supports our decision making. This time of populism is affecting people’s lives. In Malaysia the opposition-led Government back in 2018 wanted to decriminalize drugs, especially with regards to personal possession. That has since been halted temporarily, but I still believe that if we keep pushing, keep communicating the message, we will get somewhere.

Matthew Wilson, OSF (Moderator): Along that line of pushing the message, one amazing thing about Malaysia, but also a challenge for sure, is that it has such significant ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity. Political parties draw their support from different bases. As you’ve spoken out against the death penalty for drug offenses and in support of harm reduction approaches, how do you approach working with and communicating across the electorate, building support for these political and policy changes, and how do you work with different religious communities in your context?

Nurul Izzah Anwar, Malaysia: The majority of drug users that are incarcerated today in Malaysia are Malay Muslims, and that’s why when you talk about the issue of criminal justice reform it is huge. There’s the abolishment of the death penalty. There’s also harm reduction – and maximizing it, because in Malaysia we have methadone but that only benefits heroin users. Others are not being covered, because we haven’t really updated the spectrum of drugs and medicines to address this. So I feel that one key thing is to de-couple what is more acceptable amongst the electorate for now. So you approach and utilize a gradual phase to gain support – and harm reduction is it. Even the current Home Minister, I can work with him to introduce the Drug and Substance Abuse Act (which he mooted back in February last year) that enables people getting treatment instead of imprisonment. Even though he is a very hard-line, right-wing conservative, he supports harm reduction but not the abolishment of death penalty – so you de-couple and you start a kind of push where there is an agenda that people can accept. We are working with mosques, but it is unfortunate that the pandemic has halted our methadone in mosques mobile programs. I got the religious leaders in most of the states in Malaysia to agree that we should advocate for methadone, and should treat the drug users, and imprisoning them does not help matters. So having that acceptance helps us to secure the support. But then you need to do more – you also want other places of worship. And I feel that the pandemic has delayed many aspects. But you must take into account the local religious aspects. You communicate to mothers: what if your son was addicted, what would you do? Do you want to throw him behind bars? And people respond to that. Just because you have been addicted to this particular substance, do your family, the people around you, your community give up on you? Of course not. So I think this communication aspect is something that we must take very seriously, and it has to be very strategic because one wrong move creates so much push back and we have to guard against that.

Matthew Wilson, OSF (Moderator): Now, we turn to the former Mayor of Ithaca, Svante Myrick. Mayor Myrick, it’s wonderful to see you again. We first met back in 2016 and at that time you released the Ithaca Plan, which was built around four pillars of prevention, treatment, harm reduction and public safety. It charted a pragmatic, bold and progressive pathway at a municipal level. My recent personal experience of local advocacy in New York State suggests that, even in a municipality that is generally considered liberal, when it comes to the specific issue of drugs these communities can be fiercely resistant to local change. So in your experience, what local actors presented the greatest opposition and how did you approach building popular support to overcome those local objections?

Svante L. Myrick, USA: Thank you very much for having me here, but also for OSF’s support – for so many very important things, but especially for ending the ‘war on drugs’. As Mark Malloch-Brown said so succinctly, the war on drugs, of course, has always been a proxy: a way to justify the state’s use of force at whoever is the undesirable target. And that is certainly true in the United States, and it’s true in the state of New York and the city of Ithaca. And I feel very honoured to be here on such a distinguished panel. I served in a relatively small municipality, foe whom it was my honour to serve as Mayor, so I’ll give you my experience around how to build popular support? Some of it is what you’d expect: local business groups are always concerned how is this going to affect their bottom line; home-owners are concerned how is it going to affect their bottom line? We were going to bring the first supervised injection facility to the USA. Even though Sarah Evans up in Vancouver had demonstrated that supervised injection facilities lower crime and property crimes, increased the uptake of people going into and successfully completing rehab, and even though countries from Switzerland to Australia have demonstrated this has already worked with them, there is fear. As the other speakers have said, we are often in this space, fighting for more reasonable rational and humane drug policy, and we always lean on the data. We go straight to the data because we’re trying to assuage people’s fears. ‘35% less crime, 40% more likelihood of rehab’. We go to the numbers, and we go to an evidence-based approach. In my experience, the evidence-based approach is necessary, but not sufficient. Before you can tell people what you know, they need to know why you care. So I was 25 years old, and two years into being Mayor, and most folks in my community did not know about my personal story – which is that I lived the first six months of my life in a homeless shelter, and the first eight years of my life in and out of homelessness because of my father’s substance abuse disorder (and because of the ‘war on drugs’ as both things combined). That channelled him in and out of cycles of incarceration and mandatory rehab, and it just didn’t work. It didn’t work for him. It didn’t work for our family. And I had spent so much time trying to hide any evidence, to erase this from my presentation and from my background. I went off to an Ivy League school and I just fit in with the fraternity guys and pretend like it was not somebody in my family who had a substance use problem. I got into elected office, became Mayor and wanted to make these changes because I knew it was the right thing to do. I followed the data, I took the classes, I read about what was happening in Vancouver and across the world, and I thought that we could do better. But what I found was such fierce resistance until I started telling my story. And then what I found out was that the shame, the secret stigma that I’ve been trying to hide all these years, was universal. And it is shameful only because of our silence around it. In almost every public event, I would have somebody come up to me and say, ‘for me it was my mother’ or ‘just like your father, my brother has struggled’ or my sister, myself, my cousin, my best friend, my husband, my wife. Personalizing this battle, then you can pivot and say, ‘let’s agree that we want to eradicate drug use, how much longer do you want to get the ‘war on drugs’ to do it – it’s been about 50 years now, and we’ve spent in America a trillion dollars and drug use has not changed: the same percentage of folks are struggling with substance use disorder, so if you want what we want then come on board!’. As President Santos said so eloquently, the best thing you can be is persistent. So that’s my technique to any elected official would like to try this early in their term, because good governance plus time is good politics. And you will need time to sell it, to explain it, to let it work so that you can get re-elected and you can see your ideas through to completion.

Matthew Wilson, OSF (Moderator): Thank you so much for sharing that personal story and that advice, which takes me to my next question. This interplay between advancing progressive drug policy reform, the continuation of a law and order rhetoric, and building a winning coalition. You first won election at 24. In 2015, you won a second term with 89% of the vote. And in 2019, well, after the Ithaca Plan, you won a third term with 76% of the vote. Your approach was to put the whole reform upfront and use the time you had to implement it. But many elected officials are going to continue to see this as a ‘third rail’ [untouchable] issue. And historically it has been for a long time. So what is your secret, and can we expect elections to really serve as a forum for robust debate on drug policy reform?

Svante L. Myrick, USA: I’ll give you a politician’s answer, because you’re right on both counts! I believe it was Sun Tzu in The Art of War who said, ‘the battle is won before it’s even fought’. On so many issues related to policy, and drug policy, it’s no different. We need to win the battle of public opinion in between elections. We cannot expect our politicians to run on these platforms to build popular support themselves, and then see it through to the finish line. Civil society is so important, and this is where the Soros family will never get enough credit for, and the Open Society Foundation (and, of course, you don’t seek credit – which is part of why you don’t get credit!). But it is so incredibly important for the education of elected officials – the steady drum beat from organizations, like the Drug Policy Alliance here in the United States, helps move even entitled folks that may not be looking. They recognize that a couple dozen states have now not only legalized marijuana, but are moving deeper and deeper into disentangling the ‘war on drugs’ – Oregon being the most exciting example. And they were doing that even at a time when you might look at the national level – with President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions with their Stone Age views on these issues – because we win those battles before the elections even happen, by being on the ground and being engaged in community. You mentioned my age at the time, and this was a benefit to encourage more young people into elected office. Young people have energy, they have creativity, they have a moral authority, which is really important. They are also wonderfully ignorant and naive, and I was both ignorant and naive when I first took office about how difficult this was going to be! And I was also naive of the battle wounds that other politicians will carry around with them, even President Biden who’s been in elected office for 50-plus years. So even though support for the legalization of marijuana is at record-level highs, some Democrats remember taking an electoral drubbing in 1994 and are worried that it could happen again. If he comes out ahead on this issue, encouraging new, fresh blood in our political system is one way we can make breakthroughs – not just in the ending the ‘war on drugs’, but in so many issues from advancing our sustainable development goals to ending inequality. We’ll find that rising generations are willing to tackle these challenges in ways that put their naivety and ignorance to good use.

Question from Audience: How do you think we can bring the UN along in support of a more modern drug policy approach?

Juan Manuel Santos: Let me say two things very briefly. Firstly, I forgot to underline the evolution of the mentality of public opinion in Colombia. Right now, many of the former hard-liners accept the argument, but they still are afraid of the reaction of the Republican electorate. So what they’re saying now, many of them, is that they accept it – but unless the whole world does it, we can’t do it because Columbia would become a pariah. This is one of the arguments, and that goes directly to your question. The second issue is that the hard-liners in the country are very concerned about security. Security is the number one priority politically, and we must link this to regulation and doing away with prohibition – the positive effect, not the negative effect, because today in the minds of a majority of people they relate drug legalization with more violence when it’s exactly the opposite. And insisting on this issue is, I think, politically very important. Now to your question about the UN. You need to try to convince the pockets of resistance – I already mentioned China, Russia and the Middle East were the ones that, when we started to promote a change in the UN standards, were very against. So it’s a matter – like in any country individually – at the level of the UN that we must explain to them, how this war has simply failed and how we must change the strategy. And we must insist on that in every discussion, and slowly I think that’s a way to convince people or countries that are going to change.

Mark Malloch-Brown: Thank you to all three presenters, it was just fabulous to listen to you all. I think that the UN is caught in a strange corner on this one, because you know the location of its drug work is connected with its police work in an agency in Vienna, away from either its development capital (New York) and UNDP (which I used to run), or it’s humanitarian capital (Geneva). So it’s hooked up with entirely the wrong set of disciplines around policing, not around development. It’s very striking that UNDP takes a different line on these issues, and I think has done some work jointly with Medicines Sans Frontières around more enlightened policies. My second point is that there’s been a Russian head of that UN agency [UNODC] at times. It is very much out of the mainstream, and so a combination of the countries which have chosen to be influential in it and its location, and the intellectual place within the UN, have all isolated it from the kind of debate and discussion we’re having today. And it’s very overdue, and I really had hoped that the current Secretary General would correct this – but he hasn’t yet.

Question from Audience: Civil society clearly has a role to play in advancing drug policy reform, and in many ways being out in front of elected officials trying to make more space for these policies to become acceptable. But at the same time, that position can put them at odds with elected officials and government. They can be seen as criticizing or outlandish or easy to dismiss. So what is your advice – how should civil society work on this issue to both push the envelope, but form an allyship with elected officials and governments as partners?

Svante Myrick: Well, my first reaction is something that Wade Henderson, a mentor of mine at the national Leadership Conference, once said: if you want a friend, you have to be a friend. And being a friend means showing up. When do politicians care when you show up – well, for the voting time. But politicians are also humans (most of them anyway!), and they appreciate interaction and support. They also appreciate the kind of conversations that the Drug Policy Alliance’s Executive Director Kassandra Frederique is uniquely good at. I know her because, before she was Executive Director, she helped guide our reforms in Ithaca. And she has a way of doing what I think we all have to do in the civil society space, which is not calling out people but calling them in. It is really tempting to gain followers, to gain attention, to gain eyeballs with the megaphone and the rally in front of the elected official’s office. Usually what that does is just dig that elected official in deeper, they’re convinced that anybody rallying outside of my office will never be on my side, so let me pivot to find some friends elsewhere. By acting as a friend, and calling people in saying ‘we get it’. We get that this is difficult, we get that you’re going to need air cover, we get that you can have a lot of hard conversations. So let us help you, let us be your friend as you engage in these efforts. I think that’s something that the Drug Policy Alliance does – and I should also disclose that I’m a member of their Board, so while I’m complimenting them it might sound like I am complementing myself, but I’ll qualify that by saying that they’ve been doing great work for over 30 years and I’ve been on the Board for about five weeks!

Nurul Izzah Anwar: What really struck me was how relative proximity to real-life experiences and real-life problems really gives you a sense of understanding of what people face, and sometimes politicians lose that touch. You’re so fixated over cycles of elections, and who better than the groups of non-governmental organizations who are dealing with such problems with people who are using drugs and the problems on the ground – day in, day out. So they are such useful collaborators, especially as you face a pandemic, where governments sometimes often don’t get it right. And you do need this collaboration to fill the gaps, because there’s just too many people, especially vulnerable citizens, who are falling through the cracks. So the issue proximity does make sense. The All-Party Parliamentary Group’s secretariat is powered by actual medical experts, actual doctors and lawyers. If the politicians were left to their own devices, God knows what would come out from it! So I think it’s important to just allow the evidence to lead some of the policy decision making, and that’s what I’ve also done in my small constituency of Permatang Pauh. We got a poverty expert, an economist to conduct a multi-dimensional poverty index study during the pandemic and how COVID adjusted the poverty line. Because from there you can push policy makers, ‘hey, these are the lower income households, these are the challenges and the addiction that they’re grappling with’. And you’re not really showcasing a relevant measurement if you don’t allow experts to lead the way. Now I know at least the Malaysian Government and the economic planning unit are setting it up. The point is, this is only one small bit, so always in the mind should be proximity, and non-governmental organizations will help fill up the gaps where politicians fail to.

Matthew Wilson, OSF (Moderator): We are at the end of our time. Thank you so much to all of our speakers for making the time for this conversation. In recognition that we are at a UN event, I would like to say that we condemn in no uncertain terms the unlawful and unjustified invasion by Russia into Ukraine, and that our hearts go out to the people of Ukraine in this desperate time.

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