Friday, January 30, 2009 12:54pm GMT

By Luke Baker

LONDON (Reuters) – U.N.-sponsored negotiations on a new global drugs
strategy are close to breaking down, with profound divisions between
Europe and the United States on key policy issues, participants at the
talks in Vienna say.

The problem is that U.S. negotiators are trying to push through
anti-drug programmes that were promoted during the former Bush
administration but which are no longer advocated by President Barack
Obama, they said .

Whereas former President George W. Bush believed in a zero-tolerance
approach in the war on drugs, one of Obama’s first moves was to back the
lifting of a ban on federal funding for needle-exchange programmes. He
also gave tacit support to so-called “harm-reduction” strategies that
are seen as crucial in the fight against drug-related diseases such as

The Vienna stand-off, which threatens to scupper a March summit at which
the new drug policy declaration is to be signed, has prompted Democrats
in Congress to write to the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations
calling for intervention.

Drug policy campaigners say that without a change in the U.S. position,
anti-drug strategies could be set back for the next decade and have a
knock-on impact on the spread of HIV/Aids and other diseases.

“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,” read the letter, sent to
Susan Rice on Wednesday and signed by California Congressman Henry
Waxman, among others.

The U.S. delegation should be given new instructions from the new
administration, it said.

“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.”

Officials close to the U.S. negotiators in Vienna denied that Bush-era
policies were being “rammed through” but said instructions from Obama
administration had not been received.

“We are currently hearing out proposals, keeping options open and
Washington informed. Our new administration will continue to review and
develop our negotiating positions,” a spokeswoman for the U.S. mission
in Vienna said:


The Vienna negotiations, under the auspices of the U.N. Office on Drugs
and Crime, have been going on intermittently for several months but are
due to wrap up before a summit on March 12-13 when the new declaration
is due to be signed.

While the United States is the chief proponent of a zero-tolerance
approach to the estimated $160 billion (111.9 billion pound) illegal
drugs industry, it has support from Russia and Japan, neither of whom
support ‘harm reduction’ policies, which can include medication-assisted
therapy and drug legalisation.

The European Union’s policy position is supported by Australia, Latin
America and Iran, among others, all of whom favour policies that include
harm-reduction measures.

Drug policy campaigners believe that if the United States could be
brought closer to the European position, Japan, Russia and others
including China and India would follow, potentially producing consensus
on a new global drugs strategy.

“Time is very tight and the race is now on to change the instructions
from U.S. officials before the ink dries on the previous
administration’s line,” said Danny Kushlick, head of policy at
Transform, a British drug policy foundation.

“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.”

U.S. sources said that while it was not impossible that the negotiating
position could be changed, it would only happen once new instructions
were issued from Washington.

At the same time, while the Obama administration differs from Bush, it
does not advocate all ‘harm reduction’ strategies, which can include
drug consumption rooms, safe-injecting rooms, and providing heroin and
needles in prisons.

(Additional reporting by Mark Heinrich in Vienna)

(Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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