INTERVIEW: Nigeria should decriminalise harmless drug use – Ex-Swiss President Dierfuss

ormer President of Switzerland and current Chair, Global Commission on Drug Policy, Ruth Dierfuss

In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ Owoseye Ayodamola and Lois Ugbede, the former President of Switzerland and current Chair, Global Commission on Drug Policy, Ruth Dierfuss, during her visit to Abuja, Nigeria, spoke on the Commission’s campaign on decriminalisation of drug users.

Ms Dierfuss spoke on her drug campaign mission to Nigeria, saying the country needs to imbibe new tactics to fight the drug war.

PT – You were the first woman to be the President of the Confederation of Switzerland. How did it feel attaining that level of success?

Dierfuss: When you are the first to do something as a woman, after many decades of discrimination against women, it creates a great obligation to open the door for the next ones and to be a role model for little girls that will think that they can also dream to be president of their country.

In my case it was especially thrilling because I was elected by the parliament into the government because of the scandalous reality that the government had. ‘No woman at all’ was no longer accepted by the people.

I was elected because the parliament saw that it was time for women to enter into government.

PT- During your time as the President, you were quite successful. You are accredited with reforms in social security, health insurance, the forefront drug strategy that changed the landscape of Switzerland in terms of demand reduction strategy, but your maternity insurance law could not see the light of the day, did that leave a sour taste in your mouth?

Dierfuss: Not at all, because it is a very long battle for the maternity leave, it took about 25 years and I could say the seed that I (planted) on the issue was fruitful because it was accepted shortly after I resigned from government.

The struggle of 25 years was successful. In politics the important thing is to make things move. If another one can succeed at the end, it is okay. An important thing to note in Swiss politics is that, I was president for one year. I was in government ten years. I was successful in the terms that during the ten years as a minister of health, social affairs, environment and higher education which was all in my ministry, I was successful because we decided, together in the government, of my proposal to go for them.

Just to say, a president in Switzerland is more of a protocol issue. We are rotating. During the year you are president, you are still minister of health and so on.

You can continue to work but in the meantime, you have the responsibility to make the government function. That is just a little information about the strange political system we have.

PT – What you are always remembered for is your drug policies in Switzerland, (Needles Park used to be notorious for drug uses which you changed and which has become a model for some other countries who are battling with such issues). What inspired that movement?

Dierfuss: When I was back in government, we had two negative revolution we needed to face. One was the peak in HIV/AIDs epidemic and the other was a strong increase in heroine consumption.

One was fueling the other, the despair of the people was fueling the drug consumption and the drug consumption was fueling the epidemic through needles that were contaminated and so on.

We often see quite shocking, people lying around, people being partly organised, others came just to buy the stuff to consume and go back to their jobs. So all people in Needle Park were not miserable people.

But some of them were kept by the drug, they were dependent on it, they lived there, had petty criminality to find money to buy their drugs. Our priority was to bring these people into a more balanced live, offer them the services to protect themselves, protect the environment and to regain a better live.

At the beginning it was an initiative from NGOs, doctors, people from the faculty of medicine, and churches who said we have to reach out to the people instead of just abandoning them in the situation.

The government too accepted to develop the measures to have safe consumption of the drugs. A place where people could come and take the drug bought in black market, in a safe environment with medical and social professionals being there. We also provide syringes and other materials (for them) to take their drugs to prevent contacting and spreading HIV/AIDS.

The facility also does dope checking because when they buy most of these substances at the black market, there is a tendency that the substance has been adulterated and poisonous, for example, concrete mixed with heroine. You can imagine what concrete can do to the vein of the person injecting?

It is to solve all these mystery and problems in the society that we decided to change the drug policy.

The initiative came from people who were ready to go really inside the problem and to tell us we cannot continue with repression, abandoning the drug users but have to act.

I was happy enough to be able to convince the whole government to scale up in principle, everybody, and leave nobody behind in the intervention.

PT – You are the chair, Global Commission on Drug Policy. What steps have you taken to replicate that success in the global scene?

Driefuss – It is a huge programme with a different chapter and if we take all these chapters and implement them, we will construct a coherence into drug policy, because now, it is incoherent and inefficient and we are taking little steps but not building a coherent approach.

We promote five part for drug policy, one is the issue of health policy, harm reduction and prevention, all types of treatment and substitution treatment and so on.

The second thing, very important, that Nigeria is embarking on: There is an awareness now after so many years because pain relief was neglected. Pain relief was neglected because good medicine like morphine is in the meantime considered as a drug, and this was a forbidden drug.

For many (years), countries in Africa did not import or produce the painkillers and didn’t prescribe the pain killers. This is a very important issue and there is a growing awareness into that. The countries have been too focused on diversion on the possibility of dependence on morphine, which is not really the case, if it is prescribed very well in second situation.

The third part is the criminalisation of the consumption. In this sense, for the first two parts, Switzerland is a very good example. You have no difficulty to get pain relief, it is also paid for by the universal health coverage of the health system and the doctors have been trained for treatment and harm reduction.

Prevention at the beginning is quite difficult especially with young people who want to experiment with drugs.

Medical and public health support is a good way of tackling this menace.

In decriminalisation, Switzerland was so focused on the public health challenge that it neglected the decriminalisation aspect. We did not also use harsh punishment, it was not as it is in some countries where there is death penalty for users or little dealers.

Switzerland has introduced a fine for consumption and the fine is not too high.

Fighting drug has to do with developing the region economically and socially because the non-violent farmers, smugglers and some dealers are into this because of the lack of opportunity. Find new ways to deal with them.

And lastly, don’t leave drugs in the hands of criminal organisations, take control of the state. The government is responsible for the health and well-being of the people. Don’t leave this in the hands of the people who only have one aim, which is profit, and who use all means to make their substance stronger and unsafe, to make people dependent on their substance.

What I can personally bring into this decision is my experience in the health issue and it is largely convincing when I look at the result and I see how other European countries are doing.

The idea of harm reduction and new treatment is gaining influence.

I am actually convinced that any drug user who is not harmful to himself or others shouldn’t be punished. Why should the government interfere in the privacy of people and tell them what they are allowed to use? I am sure that the criminalisation is the main obstacle to harm reduction and treatment that work.

PT- In Nigeria, whoever uses or is caught with a wrap of Indian hemp risks 15 to 20 years in jail. Now that you are here to speak against the prejudices against those who use drugs, are you in any way interfacing with people in government to see if the drug law in Nigeria can be reviewed?

Dierfuss – Our work is to advice other countries about better policies and we have a good advocate in Nigeria, who is also a member of the Global Policy on Drug Commission, former President Olusegun Obasanjo. We also have a strong advocate from the neighbouring country, who is the former secretary general of the UN, Kofi Annan.

When I see what is also done in the West African Commission on Drugs, I see that the idea is developing. These countries have, for too long, been considered victims of international drug traffic.

It has been the place where the drugs are arriving and going through to Europe, that is, from the producer countries to the consumer countries.

The West African Commission has shown that the difference between the producer countries and the consumers business does not exist any longer.

There is no longer distinction between all these countries, when the drug is controlled by a criminal organisation going through a country or region, you will have consumption and problem in your country and your population.

We need to understand the link between consumption and socio-economic problems, more than to be blind about consumption and think the people taking it are people without moral and if we put them in jail, they will recover. We do not need to stigmatise or quarantine them or see them as people with plague or threat to the society.

The philosophy of punishing people who take drugs and do no harm to people is no longer working, the perception is just something that has no reality at all. They are normal people and majority of them have family and are responsible people. Putting substance users in jail is as silly as saying wine users and smokers should be put in jail. I could say many example to show how unreasonable it is too punish people who use drug.

PT- Nigeria has become one of the traffic routes for illegal trafficking of drugs to Europe. From your perspective, what is the best approach the Nigerian government can take to stem this tide, knowing full well that as much as this drug passes through our borders, some are retained in the country?

Dierfuss– I see no relationship between the decriminalisation of those who use drug and the fight against criminal organisations. On the one side, people for one reasons or the other, either good or bad, use substance. That is something that is only criminalised with the idea that these people are dangerous, they are immoral and bad people.

Some police think if they arrest the consumers, they will stop the traffic. That is an illusion. To stop the traffic, there are two or three things to do.

First, is to control it at the border and to fight against corruption, fight against money laundering in the country.

When I speak about corruption, the West African Commission needs to be brave, knowing that drug money can influence election, can be put in houses with new neighbourhoods springing up like mushroom. This needs an international corporation to track money flow and to control the border.

That needs intelligence, it means bringing people inside the criminal organisation to know when transport is coming. That needs a government that is resistant to corruption.

A counter example of what it should not be, is an example of Latin America. Latin America thought they have a battle and because of that put armed military with heavy weapons to fight the cartel.

This resulted with the cartel responding by buying weapons which has led to an escalation of violence in the region. The cartel fight themselves for control of the region and also the military and government.

The places with the highest level of homicide in the world are in Latin America. They are in Central America, Honduras, Peru, and Colombia among others.

The militarisation has cost Mexico more than hundred thousand (100,000) human lives and it is still on going. This is what I can really wish for Africa, they should not take the way of Latin America.

Do not militarise, do not escalate. There is enough work to do to trace the money, trace the substance to fight against the corruption and to fight against money laundering

Often in international statistics you read that the mount of seizure of substance has progressed, this year so many kilos of cocaine, marijuana, cannabis etc has been seized by law and other forces when you look at the price in the market of these substances, what you see is that the price did not go up.

What that means for an economist, is that, it means there is no scarcity, and there is enough in the market to provide for the people who buy it.

This means that the seizure was a little percentage of the whole traffic. This is not a great success.

PT- Do you have any moral burden, based on your past position as the President of Swiss, and as the chair of the commission, with the role the banks in your country have been playing, in terms of keeping laundered money from drugs and corruption from other countries.

Dierfuss: As you know, Switzerland has held (much) money that was not correct in their bank system, also money of corrupt politicians. As you know Nigeria is a good partner now, to bring back this money and to use it in real development of this country.

Money that was taken off by Nigerian politicians is now coming back because we saw this absolutely necessary and because we saw that these countries have made the steps to show that this money was money to be given back to the population in Nigeria.

This was a corruption from the political side. You speak about corruption or benefit of drug business. I just insisted before, of the necessity of international collaboration. Even if I am quite critical of drug control policy in conventions because I have seen what happened in the fifty years of the people, I think it is necessary to fight against the crime and the organization.

The sub of this convention, the 88 convention, put high level of collaboration between the bank system and Switzerland was inspired or felt constrained morally, to develop the system of curtailing money laundering.

I will say that we have now reached a good level of control. Switzerland is no longer a safe habour. I would not swear that there is no amount at all in Swiss bank because organisations can be very smart in organising several institutions and businesses and at the end it is very difficult for us to know where some money is coming from.

But when I think about the scandal we have had and the reputation Switzerland had about 25 to 30 years ago, we are quite relieved by the progress we have done. I will say now Switzerland is not a safe harbour for drug money.

PT: The drug commission recently released its 2017 report. What is the message in it for Nigeria?

Dierfuss – It has a very important message for all societies, but I think for Nigeria, there is a vicious circle. The people do not know what the drugs are but they have a perception on the drugs and the people that use the drugs.

With this perception, they will support harsh punishment for the people that use the drugs. They will support the idea that these people do not deserve aids from the states to recover or to find a good balance in their lives. The politicians will be afraid about bringing the issue with a new view to the society. Also, because drug users are minority and not the majority, that will probably influence the vote in a positive way.

Politicians often look out for the next challenges against the next election. They generally have some difficulties to long term view and to swim against the stream.

Politicians should always be ready to swim against the tide. A great Chinese leader said fish has to swim against the tide down the stream and politicians have to be ready to swim against the tide in issues that are not easy but very important. Politicians should be ready to go into open scenes to give helping hands to people that need help.

When I was the president and a member of the Swiss government, I related with the people to know if what I was offering them was what they really needed and to help them stay alive.

PT- You had a meeting with the Minister of Health, Isaac Adewole, and the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, on drug related issues. What do you intend to achieve with the meeting?

Dierfuss – I was very happy with the meeting with the minister of health. I can see that he is bringing his experience as a physician and oncologist to help to fight against HIV/AIDS in the country. I found lots of openness and hope to solve the problem. What I thought is very positive, is the focus on access to pain relief medicine.

I heard with great pleasure that there is an openness about harms reduction and other means for the people using drugs. I have the impression that the decision is open in Nigeria, and in this sense, the taboo is broken. Let’s hope that the perception of the vicious circle will be broken with the commitment of politicians.

PT- Life expectancy in Switzerland is one of the highest in the world, what measures did the government put in place to achieve this?

Dierfuss – In Switzerland and most European countries, the life expectancy of women is quite higher than men. This is achieved with the important services that are given to women when they are pregnant and giving birth to their children.

The whole support that they give is one of the reason why they live longer and another reason is the fight against violence against women.

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