Holdover Bush Drug Policies Create Standoff at U.N. Summit

U.S. delegates to a United Nations drug summit are blocking an agreement that would include support for anti-drug harm-reduction strategies like needle exchanges, which were opposed by the Bush administration but supported by President Barack Obama.

Reuters reported Jan. 30 that the delegates, appointed by Bush, could derail the Vienna drug summit. “We understand that the U.S. delegation in Vienna has been actively blocking the efforts of some of our closest allies — including the European Union — to incorporate in the declaration reference to harm-reduction measures, such as needle exchange,” according to a letter from Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) to Susan Rice, the new U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Waxman asked Rice to give the delegates new instructions based on Obama's policies.

“Otherwise, we risk crafting a U.N. declaration that is at odds with our own national policies and interests, even as we needlessly alienate our nation's allies in Europe,” wrote Waxman.

Obama has called for lifting the federal funding ban on needle exchanges and has expressed support for other harm-reduction policies aimed at fighting HIV/AIDS. However, Obama does not support all harm reduction, the definition of which includes safe-injection sites for illicit drugs and providing narcotics to imprisoned addicts in some nations.

The delegates are working on a new declaration on drugs under the auspices of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. The U.S. has long backed a “zero tolerance” policy on drug use, and has been joined by Russia and Japan in opposing harm reduction.

“The implications of changing the political line is enormous for those who have suffered under the U.S. administration's refusal to support basic harm-reduction measures,” said Danny Kushlick of the U.K. drug-policy group Transform.