LONDON 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 HIV/Aids.
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 NEEDLE AND THE DAMAGE DONE
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)