The Vienna Declaration: Advocating drug law reform


In 1998, the UN hosted a special session on illegal drugs which set out to implement law enforcement control strategies in the hope of creating a “drug free” world. Today, it is generally recognised that this policy has been an abject failure. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime stated in a 2011 report that the “overall number of drug users appears to have increased over the last decade from 180 to some 210 million people”.

In Australia, studies have found that the government’s strategy of harm minimisation has not been matched in funding terms. They note that more money is spent on law enforcement than on prevention, treatment and rehabilitation programs.

Moreover, the Australian Crime Commission in its most recent Illicit Drug Data Report observes that drug related arrests have increased over past years. The conclusions are the global drug war has failed.

In a country like Australia, where the legal use of tobacco has decreased over the years, some people may wonder why governments have refused to apply policies on illicit drugs similar to those regulating tobacco products.

Some might view current drug policy as more akin to the US’s alcohol prohibition of the 1920s.

In 2010 the Vienna Declaration was drafted as a response to this failed “war on drugs”. It’s advocates highlight how drug policies, to date, have been unsuccessful in limiting the spread of HIV.

The Vienna Declaration was established by several HIV and drug policy scientific bodies, including the International AIDS Society, the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, with the purpose of shifting the drug law debate from an ideological one, to one based on scientific evidence.

While previous unsuccessful strategies focused on reducing the availability and use of illegal drugs, partners to the Vienna Declaration recognise that a more successful strategy would be one which centres the debate on the health, safety and social consequences of illegal drug use.

By the inclusion of such issues into the debate, the Vienna Declaration is admitting dialogue based on responsible policy into the conversation. Specifically, it allows for models of decriminalisation and legalisation to enter the discussion.

In the broader context, it encourages conversations on a wide array of topics such as: drug policy and health outcomes; the drug trade and taxation; drug use in prisons; effects of imprisonment on families; cost of law enforcement and criminal justice; potential prevention, treatment and rehabilitation strategies and; the influence of organised crime in the drug trade.

The Vienna Declaration is gathering interest from governments all over the world. In Canada, it has been endorsed by the local governments of Red Deer, Toronto, Vancouver, and Victoria.

Leaders in the nation of Georgia have also backed the plan, as too have several former Latin American Presidents: Fernando Henrique Cardozo of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia.

In some parts of the world reforms have already occurred. In Portugal, for example, the government decriminalised the use of all illicit drugs in 2001.

Recent research on Portugal’s reforms has found that — against the naysayers’ belief that decriminalisation would encourage increasing use of illicit drugs — “decriminalisation has had no adverse effect on drug usage”.

Interestingly, the Portuguese government opposed straight-out legalisation on the grounds that they are signatories to many international treaties prohibiting drug use.

Backing for drug law reform is on the rise. Organisations as diverse as AIDS awareness associations; drug reform advocacy groups; sex worker advocacy groups; drug user support networks; research institutes; university faculties and many others, have all signed the Vienna Declaration.

The common denominator of these groups is their understanding of the consequences of blanket prohibitions. So long as such organisations continue to discuss the issue, policymakers will have to listen, and begin making genuine reforms to strengthen the health, and social benefits, of all in society.

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