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A Year Long Battle for Transparent Policy Making

Amendments of the Law on Psychoactive and Controlled Substances in Serbia. Read about the controversial and not-transparent process of the adoption of the amendments, and the fight of NGOs to be involved.

In the process of harmonisation with EU regulations, and especially in order to organise services more efficiently in the Republic of Serbia, amendments to the Law on Psychoactive and Controlled Substances aim to address the introduction of new organisational units whose role is to provide conditions for implementing effective mitigation measures for harmful consequences of “drug abuse“ as stated by the Ministry of Health.
Amendments to the Law on Psychoactive and Controlled Substances foresee the establishment of a Drug Monitoring Centre, tasked with collecting statistical data related to drug use in the general population, needs for treatment, infectious diseases and mortality associated with drug use, data in drug-related links to crimes, drug seizures, and the drug market. That centre should work closely with EMCDDA, and represents the so-called National Observatory.
The Ministry of Health, in consultations with various governmental institutions working on the document, is/was supposedly hoping – as stated in one of the inviting documents – that the amendments will result in better organisation and quality of work of all ministries involved: health, education, internal affairs, labour, defence, youth and sport, culture, justice, agriculture, public administration and local self-government, finance (customs), as well as numerous organisations, institutes responsible for public health, and other interested organisations.
On 26th December it was exactly a year since the public debate on the Draft Law on Amendments to the Law on Psychoactive Controlled Substances was held in Belgrade, organised by the Working Group of the Ministry of Health. The event, that was organised almost in secret, was a result of a long announced work on the draft of the law, dating from 2014, as a part of the obligations that Serbia has in the process of accession to the European Union, specifically covered by Chapter 24: Justice, freedom and security.
The public debate was said by the Working Group of the Ministry of Health to have included input from members of various patient organisations and organisations advocating for the legalisation of cannabis for medical purposes, some NGOs, and a few professionals. However, no one seems to know who these representatives were, or indeed what the draft document they allegedly helped come up with looks like. The pretty aggressive debate was mainly oriented on the issue of cannabis, putting aside all other things this document should regulate, such as harm reduction programs, Early Warning System, functioning of the different bodies, processes and related protocols.
“Public debates” on the proposed draft law were then organised in Novi Sad and Nis in January 2017, but were very poorly communicated among key stakeholders and relevant parties, and were almost without any response from the members of the working groups to elaborate on decisions made and questions asked. It seemed as if public hearings were organised for the sake of box ticking in the procedures of law adoption, rather than for the amendments to be discussed publicly, with those that that the law will affect directly.
All interested citizens and professionals were invited to participate in the public debate, by submitting suggestions and comments electronically, with a promise that this would be an opportunity to see all amendments proposed, and evaluate accepted and dismissed suggestions. Serbian NGOs working on drug related issues in consultations with various partners thoroughly analysed the draft law, commented, and proposed improvements such as a wider range of changes and calls for radical policy changes towards drugs, based on the principles of public health and human rights.
Drug Policy Network South East Europe organised a press conference to address the non-transparent course of the process, and results of the public debate about Amendments to the Law on Psychoactive Substances. For example, why the changes didn’t reflect the issues concerning serious changes to the law that were made by urgent procedure instead of conducting a serious and quality process defining how those changes should look.
Questions were asked around efficiency of the establishment of early warning system and its role in the data collection and research of new psychoactive substances for creating a base for acquiring knowledge on which we can base our decision and policy making in the future. Questions included whether the data collection solely came from cases of overdose (if recorded) and police seizures. NGOs are not yet permitted to implement drug checking services, even after the successful IPA5 project, through which EMCDDA facilitated a Serbian Delegation visit to Austria to visit Check-It. This visit again took place without all relevant actors and needed partners, however, since it was fuelled by the private connections and interests from the Serbian side, who were questioning the decisions of the Ministry of Health as the future focal point of EMCDDA, as well as the legitimacy of EMCDDA bodies, to whom this issue was addressed several times, but remained ignored.
After the summer, NGOs involved in the discussion on the Amendments to the Law on Psychoactive Substances, with DPNSEE as lead, managed to get the support from two Government bodies – The Office for Combating Drugs, and the Office for Cooperation with Civil Society Organisations – to organise a meeting with the Ministry of Health and representatives of the working group, to get answers to what happened with the Law, and why we didn’t get any answers for 9 months, not respecting deadlines for reflection on the proposal, and detailed elaboration on accepted and rejected proposals. The meeting had limited success because NGOs presented a comprehensive and qualified approach to dealing with legislation, and stayed on positions regarding very important issues related to drugs: the need to ensure involvement of civil society organisations in all issues related to drug use, a wider set of services within early warning systems (including field work and consulting), the right to bring samples of substances for checking, wider distribution of Naloxone around the country, use of language that will not stigmatise people who use drugs, respecting the right to information and protection of sensitive information, better coordination of all the stakeholders, especially reporting about drugs, etc. The proposed amendments to the law still have to pass a few levels to come to the parliament and we are ready to continue our advocacy efforts.
In the meantime, NGOs turned to other approaches prescribed by the law to acquire information and filed a request for access to information of public importance. This request relates to the following information:
  • Decision on the composition of the Working Group for the drafting of the Law on Amendments to the Law on Psychoactive Controlled Substances,
  • Minutes from the meetings of the Working Group for the drafting of the Law on Amendments to the Law on Psychoactive Controlled Substances,
  • All proposals, suggestions, initiatives, and comments submitted during the public debate on the Draft Law on amendments and supplements to the Law on Psychoactive Controlled Substances that lasted from the 26th December 2016 until January 20, 2017,
  • The text of the Draft Law on Amendments to the Law on Psychoactive Controlled Substances established after a public hearing,
  • All other documents formally submitted by the Working Group to the Ministry or other institutions and organizations.
The answer came 7 days later explaining the process of the Public Hearing and aims of the law, but not giving any answers regarding information asked. Then, the appeal to the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance was submitted, and the result is as yet unknown. The crucial issue is recognition of the incompetence of the working group appointed to lead this very important task, as well as the non-transparent process of the policy-making – processes which are still, unfortunately, reality in Serbia.
While the system is allowing government bodies such as the Ministry of Health and its working group to slack and do their job superficially, with working group members not really understanding how it affects the society and people directly, they are still receiving salaries from our taxes, making decisions, and creating the policies without asking the people who are affected by their decisions directly. All for the sake of doing it and reporting to EU that “we did it”.
Irena Molnar, NGO Re Generation
Originally publihsed on Drugreporter: 


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