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Drugs and Alcohol Today
Lessons from civil society? A response to Collins
Damon Barrett,
Article information:
To cite this document:
Damon Barrett, (2017) "Lessons from civil society? A response to Collins", Drugs and Alcohol Today, Vol. 17 Issue: 3,
pp.141-142, https://doi.org/10.1108/DAT-06-2017-0020
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https://doi.org/10.1108/DAT-06-2017-0020
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(2017),"Letters from Barnett, Blickman and Lines", Drugs and Alcohol Today, Vol. 17 Iss 3 pp. 147-148 <a href="https://
doi.org/10.1108/DAT-06-2017-0028">https://doi.org/10.1108/DAT-06-2017-0028</a>
(2017),"Letter in response to John Collins, “Losing UNGASS? Lessons from civil society, past and present” DAT Issue 2,
2017", Drugs and Alcohol Today, Vol. 17 Iss 3 pp. 143-144 <a href="https://doi.org/10.1108/DAT-06-2017-0023">https://
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Letter to the editor
Damon Barrett
Lessons from civil society? A response to Collins
Dear sirs
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I was surprised by John Collins’ (2017) critique of NGO strategies in drug policy reform. In it,
Collins critiques the idealistic, myopic, politically naive and ultimately failed strategies of civil
society leading up to the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in 2016 (the horribly
acronymned “UNGASS”). As someone who was involved, and as a Researcher, I think a reply is
warranted. Two pieces of mine are included in the critique, and I helped develop two strategies
leading up to UNGASS, so I feel somewhat justified. The problem, of course, is not the critique of
strategies. This is essential and welcome. Many debriefs and M&E processes have been done.
The problem is the content of the critique.
From a research perspective, the main problem is methodological. Collins was peripheral to civil
society’s efforts, so considerable work would be needed as a researcher from the outside to
know their strategies. However, in this paper there is no attempt to assess actual strategy
documents. No interviews with key players are conducted. Sweeping conclusions are drawn
based on selective parts of the debates in which Collins had a stake, based on his own
interpretation of the events, and based on historical analysis that is of questionable
methodological relevance to the empirical claims made.
The piece falls down on the above points alone in my view, and I am somewhat surprised
this was not captured in peer review. But there are also some specific arguments to which I wish
to respond.
Collins claims a distinction between what he calls the “progressive school” and the “reform
optimists”. The accusation is that there were on one side some politically astute pragmatists
working on flexibility and national reforms, and “idealists” on the other looking for an unrealistic
head-on collision with the treaty system. This is so obviously distorted that I do not know how it
can be honestly claimed. Some of the civil society leaders on national reforms and seeking legal
flexibilities within the treaties were and still are also those seeking collision with the regime. These
are not mutually exclusive. This is why those that bear the brunt of Collins’ attacks write mostly
about the full range of options open to States. Their advocacy efforts and successes are not
credited, which is unfair, and their writings that contradict the narrative are not cited.
In this regard, it is claimed that the initiative across the reform movement was lost due to a
preoccupation with US interpretive approaches to the treaties. A blog I co-wrote is cited to make
the point. But the entire issue was ultimately marginal to us, taking up little time. That piece was in
fact only written because Collins went public in support of what we saw as a very questionable
and dishonest stance by the USA. In doing so, the name of LSE was thrown behind the idea,
one that carries more weight, for good or bad, than small NGOs. Without this, we may have said
nothing publicly. We were responding to what we read as apologism from our “sector” for US
exceptionalism and its ongoing ability to browbeat Latin America with the treaties. Ironically,
we are the ones accused of myopic strategies and “drug fetishism”.
Collins says that “political bets were placed on a chaotic UNGASS producing spontaneously
positive outcomes”. NGOs are accused of having an unrealistic view of politics and a lack of
long-term vision, which his paper seeks to correct. Aside from the obvious hubris of the claim,
how can he know what political bets were placed where? He cannot, using the methods
employed here. The most generous I can be is that Collins has mistaken messages at certain
moments with multi-issue and multi-year strategies.
The UNGASS was a platform, one point in longer and wider efforts. Huge amounts of work went
into bringing in new NGOs, speaking behind the scenes with governments and UN agencies,
and so on. There were separate lines of advocacy on harm reduction, medicines, human rights,
the death penalty, sentencing, rural production, civil society engagement, and the international
DOI 10.1108/DAT-06-2017-0020
VOL. 17 NO. 3 2017, pp. 141-142, © Emerald Publishing Limited, ISSN 1745-9265
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DRUGS AND ALCOHOL TODAY
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PAGE 141
system as a whole. While there were disappointments and areas in need of rethinking, many
of us achieved a lot of what we wanted from UNGASS. New partners and audiences,
a larger constituency of support, new donors in some cases, and, yes, gains in language in the
outcome document.
Even then Collins portrays the description of gains as an effort to rescue something from the
UNGASS ashes, seemingly in order to match his narrative. But when Rick Lines and I wrote about
a human rights “win” at the UNGASS, to which Collins refers to make this claim, it was not a
rescue attempt. We had been nurturing exactly that language. It was an actual win of which we
and others were proud and looked forward to building upon. Yes, 2008 was an “inflection point”
as Collins notes, especially on human rights within international drug policy. Those Collins unfairly
trashes as ineffective idealists were all there working to make that happen, looking to a decade
down the line when such debates might have gathered in strength and when the relationships we
built with delegations through those early efforts could be built upon.
True, we picked fights on politically heated topics at UNGASS, one of which was the treaties.
We knew that many changes would not come to pass. We knew very well the political
environment. We knew “harm reduction” would not be included. We knew the abolition of the
death penalty could not be agreed. We certainly knew that the treaties would not be opened.
But sometimes drawing open the curtains on a theatre of the absurd is useful, so long as all are
clear on what it is we are trying to achieve by doing so.
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In solidarity
Damon Barrett
Reference
Collins, J. (2017), “Losing UNGASS: lessons from civil society, past and present”, Drugs and Alcohol Today,
Vol. 17 No. 3, pp. 143-4.
PAGE 142
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VOL. 17 NO. 3 2017
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