UNGASS 2016 – The consensus holds, but only under protest

From time to time, we will be featuring guest blogs. Our first one is from Dr Axel Klein from Kent University and Editor of Drugs and Alcohol Today.

  • Consensus on Outcome Documents and centrality of drug convention is reached, but big split between reformers and conservative states
  • Legalisation schemes continue to be rolled out across different countries in clear contravention of treaty stipulations
  • Increasing number of countries adopt death penalty and corporate punishment
  • US position puts unprecedented emphasis on treatment and alternative punishment
  • Detailed list of operational recommendations likely to result in funding proposals submitted to European Union
  • Role of international agencies like INCB and UNODC strengthened
  • Detailed critique of human rights violations, adverse impact on public health and development objectives remains unaddressed
  • Next meeting in 2019 likely to be more acrimonious

“The drug problem and its related evils transcend borders and affect citizens worldwide. Hence international cooperation towards an integrated and balanced strategy is required in order to counter them”, said Archbishop Bernadido Auza of the Holy See when addressing the UN General Assembly on Thursday, 21 of April.

The need for International cooperation underpins the international drug control regime and lies at the foundation of the three international treaties that govern the global (mis-) management of illicit drugs. Most national delegates invoked the need for a joint approach to fighting the “global drug problem” and re-affirmed the centrality of the treaties and the organisational mechanisms like the Commission of Narcotic Drugs (the United Nations commission responsible for drugs) and the International Narcotics Control Board (the administrative body regulating implementation). This unity of purpose is also suggested by the outcome document “Our joint commitment to effectively addressing and countering the world drug problem” that was accepted by the General Assembly.

Here the commitment to the goals and objective of the three conventions is affirmed and the world drug problem recognised as a common and shared responsibility. How this is interpreted at national level, however, is becoming increasingly contentious. Countries are at odds over key issues such as the role of drugs in society, the medical value of prohibited substances, the purpose and severity of sanctions and even the objective of drug policy itself. For now the desire for a global agreement outweighs the differences as member states agreed on the consensus statement in advance. But it allowed many of the member states to take more assertive positions in the national statements that followed. The differences emerging between different countries are growing so wide that the consensus may not survive the next UNGASS scheduled for 2019.

Radical Reformers versus Militant Conservatives

Drug policy reform has long been championed by pressure groups such as the Global Commission and a coalition of Civil Society Organisations. In recent years a number of UN member states have begun to adopt the policies proposed. Bolivia arguably led the way by opting out of the conventions and legalising the coca leaf, a substance classified as schedule 1 under the 1961 Convention. In 2014 Uruguay legalised cannabis, and argued in its statement at UNGASS 2016 that the war on drugs had not only failed in eliminating the drugs phenomenon but had instead caused more damage than the drugs themselves.

The sense of failure was also expressed by Colombian president Santos, who called the idea of a “drug free world” illusory and announced the introduction of medical cannabis. Further flaws in the 1961 convention were picked up by Jamaica, whose representative called the classification of cannabis “anomalous” and described its national model of decriminalization for personal use and as a religious sacrament. Legislative changes regarding cannabis were also announced by Canada, designed to “keep marijuana out of the hands of children and profits out of the hands of criminals” even though this may challenge the status quo in many countries.

Countering these trends Russia said that ”in the run up to the special session some sceptics and pessimists argued that the war on drugs ad been lost. We cannot accept this. We have by no means lost the war but to win it we need new levels of solidarity and unity.” The position was supported by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, who agreed on a vision of “a region and world free of drugs”.

Coming out strongly against calls for reform Malaysia urged countries to “remain resolute against calls to legalise drugs,” while Thailand stated that “we do not agree with legalisation of illicit drugs and decriminalization for serious offences”. Pakistan and Iran both presented themselves as frontline states impacted by drug consumption elsewhere. Pakistan also warned that the legalization of illicit substances was providing a fillip to supply chains and that the use of concepts that were “lacking consensus” such as harm reduction and “a human rights based approach” were confusing the issue.

The European Balancing Act

In between these two camps stands the European Union with its commitment to the three conventions and the continued control of illicit substances. It also called for “strengthened international cooperation to counter drug trafficking with its links to corruption, organized crime and terrorism”. But the EU also regretted that the outcome document did not address the death penalty for drug offences, called for proportionality in penalties, and emphasised a balanced approach. It made clear that the “the ultimate objective of the international drug control system is protecting public health”. In addition drug policy should be aligned with the development agenda to promote “health, democracy, the rule of law and sustainable livelihoods.” Finally, it calls for the operational recommendations to be put into practice.

With this statement the EU has maintained links with both camps while positioning itself as the anchor of the international system. Representatives from the different European Union countries used the opportunity to condemn the use of the death penalty (as did many others), before advertising the success of particular policies. Particularly the roll-out of prevention and treatment programmes and the various interventions bundled together under the term ‘harm reduction’, as well as the need for evidence based policy and proportionate punishment. But agreement on commonalities disguises big differences between member states.

The Czech Republic, for instance, stated that prohibition served to exacerbate all health risks associated with drug use and talked about a “global drug regulation regime.” Sweden, by contrast, believed that no “public health policy can include making yet more substances damaging to health even more available and accessible.” There is a sense among drug policy makers that Europe has struck a balance between demand and supply side interventions that is paying off in terms of stabilising consumption, reversing trends on overdose deaths, containment of infections and the insulation of drug users from criminal sanctions. Radical change is therefore not expected from any member states in the near future. The opportunity for leadership is therefore passing to Latin America, but the real test of the viability of sustainable policy change will be in the US.

The US: From Drug War Champion to Advocate of Flexibility

In the past the US was a fierce advocate of the militarisation of drug control. It led the way domestically with a sharp enforcement regime that was fuelling the incarceration epidemic leading to the biggest prison population in the world.[1] Yet over the last few years the situation has changed dramatically. Grass roots initiatives have created legal cannabis markets in a number of states, without overdue interference by federal agencies even though they are in contravention of federal law. The US position now supports “drug policy reform under the framework of the three UN conventions”. At UNGASS, the US representative pointed to national efforts in reducing incarcerations and helping with the social re-integration of drug offenders.

In an election year the future direction of US policy is shrouded in uncertainty. Some of the presidential candidates are firmly opposed to marijuana legalisation. At the same time, six more states including California are deciding on this issue in the referenda scheduled for November 2016. Overriding the democratic determination of the people and trampling on the rights of states might be too big a challenge for an incoming president. On the other hand drug control has long been a highly politicised issue in the US and may be prioritized by a new government.

Implications for the European Commission

Notwithstanding the growing divide between the camps, the immediate concern for the European Commission will be how to respond to the calls for “enhancing assistance to developing countries” and the “need to strengthen cooperation between the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and other United Nations entities, within their respective mandates”.  Several countries issued requests for technical assistance and the outcome document is shot through with exhortations to employ UNODC’s facilities. In all likelihood funding proposals will be submitted in due course to the largest development cooperation funder. They are likely to follow up on the below recommendations made in section 3, “supply reduction and related measures; effective law enforcement; responses to drug-related crime; and countering money-laundering and promoting judicial cooperation”.

Highlighted are inter alia measures for:

  • improving the exchange of information,
  • monitoring trafficking patterns
  • coordinated border management strategies
  • improved forensic capacity
  • drug trafficking and corruption
  • precursor control and money laundering.

Many of these issues are already being addressed by European Commission funded projects, but the single most important outcome of the UNGASS is to give a new mandate to UNODC and other UN agencies to make proposals on behalf of UN member states and regional organisations.

Anticipating such calls the European Commission should take stock of its current programming to draw out the lessons learnt and identify priority areas where beneficiary and donor interests converge. Against the raised concerns over human rights violations, disproportionate punishments for offenders, corruption and the adverse impact on health and development goals there need to be adequate supervisory systems. Implementing agencies and cooperation partners should be clearly accountable particularly at the hard end of law enforcement/judicial cooperation. Ideally a coalition of international and national civil society organisations would work in partnership to guarantee the necessary level of detachment and oversight.

The Critique of the Existing System

For many observers the outcome was deeply disappointing. The Global Commission on Drug Policy[2] published a statement lamenting the:

  • Failure of the current system to reduce drug consumption and supply
  • Failure of the document to acknowledge the violence involved in current policy
  • Failure to address criminalization and incarceration of drug users and death penalty for supply side offences
  • Failure to move towards the rescheduling of currently controlled substances

The critique of different aspects of the existing drug control system was developed at the thematic discussions at the side events of UNGASS. Here technical experts from international organisations and national centres of excellence pursued four lines of argument:

Human Rights:  it is argued that penalties for drug offenders are disproportionate, excessive, inhumane and ineffective; they have failed to reverse the incidence of drug use, often inflict far greater harms than the drugs themselves and stand in no proportion to the harm caused. Drugs trafficking does not constitute the ‘most serious crime’ category for which the death penalty can be applied. Regardless, the number of states applying the death penalty for drug offences has grown from ten in 1969 to 32 today, with an estimated 1,000 people executed every year. Not known are the numbers of extra-judicial killings that take place in many countries.

Punishments for drug offences are not only excessive in themselves, but they are often higher than the punishments for far more serious crimes like murder. Trafficking offences carry sentencing tariffs well in excess of those for manslaughter, grievous bodily harm or rape. Draconian penalties for minor offences have led to mass incarceration, with drug offenders making up large proportion of the global prison population.[3]

The death penalty and the disproportionate punishments constitute a violation of the right to life under the Human rights conventions that are superordinate to the Drug Conventions according to Jan Malinowski of the Pompidou group. This argument was underlined in the statements made by national representatives from all EU and many Latin American countries, when they expressed their regret that the meeting did not result in the abolition of the death penalty.

Public Health: The focus on supply side control and the approach taken by many countries to regard drugs as a security issue has led to the relegation of public health. This has distracted policy makers from the main purpose of the conventions which were created to protect “the health and welfare” of mankind. According to the Office of High Commissioner of Human Rights the fear of arrest and imprisonment discourages drug users from seeking medical help and has thereby increased the risk of infection and overdose, main cause of death of drug users. Even though there is a strong body of evidence many countries continue to resist introducing the most effective interventions. David Wilson, Director for the Global HIV Programme, illustrated the point with the example of Kazakhstan, as being able to halve HIV incidence by adopting a package of needle and Syringe Exchanges, Opiate Substitution and Anti Retroviral Treatment. Harm Reduction was effective in averting bad events for the individual and society at large because infectious diseases spread across the wider community via sexual contact. Not doing anything would only lead to “epidemics, addiction and mortality.”

In many countries the structural risk environment was significantly affected by law enforcement behaviour that were pushing drug use underground. Practices like confiscating drug use paraphernalia was only multiplying the associated risks, while harassment and extortion were raising the barriers to treatment. The WHO therefore called for the decriminalisation of drug use in order to better deliver health care and treatment.

Social Development: there was an expression of concern about how drug policies were impacting on social development goals. UNDP reported the effect drug policy was having on rural communities affected by crop eradication and the violence unleashed in communities in areas where the state had a low presence. Another issue was the negative impact that mass incarceration was having on families. The violence against people, families and entire communities accused of involvement in drug production and trafficking. While the agency did not have a mandate on drugs it was voicing its concerns over the impact on social policy.

Human Security: Drug control is a policy formulated to promote public health. By suppressing licit forms of supply opportunities are opened for criminal suppliers. Over the years they have become increasingly organised and powerful. In many countries, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean drug traffickers have corrupted large sections of the public administration, challenged the authorities, and are using force to settle scores. The ensuing violence has causes tens of thousands of deaths and seriously compromised human security and public safety in many countries. This is a direct consequence of the prohibition of drug commodities, not of drugs themselves.

Is there a Future for the Conventions?

For the past century or drug policy has been premised on the need for international cooperation. At UNGASS each country repeated the mantra of the need for a global approach and support for the conventions. But they were perhaps protesting too much or wishing to hang on to an organisational framework that through sheer force of habit has assumed an ontological quality.

In reality the momentum seems to be moving towards a rupture between different blocks with irreconcilable policy approaches and the fragmentation of the drug control system.

First, it should be clear that the critique of the existing drug policy dilemmas that were voiced by reformers, remain largely unaddressed, unacknowledged and without practical guidance in the recommendations. It allows some countries to continue with practices that others consider human rights violations including judicial killing, corporal punishment, large scale incarceration and punitive regimes for offenders.

Secondly, the differences between reformers and conservatives are growing as both sides are becoming more entrenched. Reform minded states are now able to assess a growing number of policy models, while conservative countries are gaining in confidence about the effectiveness of their approach.

Thirdly, global cooperation is a legacy from the opium war era,[4] when drug producing countries could be distinguished from importing consumer countries. But this is hardly the case any longer when most countries are producers and consumers and when chemical ingenuity and farming expertise can readily provide alternatives.


For the moment the consensus has been retained and differences papered over. It is increasingly difficult, however, to reconcile the position of countries like Uruguay, the US and in future Canada, that brazenly allow for the non-medical / scientific production and distribution of cannabis with the stipulations of the conventions. A number of conservative countries particularly in the ASEAN region and the Islamic world is to intensify continue to hold on the vision of a drug free society and believe it worth defending.

When the UN assembled for its last special session in 2008 member states agreed on a drug free world and a ten-year plan of action. In 2016, the treaties were re-affirmed, but only just. Far from creating the foundation for a common programme the session was simply an event in the process. In the words of the representative from the Czech Republic UNGASS was “not the end of the debate, but only the start.” It is likely that his country may follow the different states in the Americas where currently controlled substances like cannabis and coca become legally available. As the chair of the International Narcotic Control Board made clear, decriminalization, alternative penalties and harm reduction are all reconcilable with the UN Conventions. Free commercial markets are not. It may therefore be worth exploring alternative international arrangements for the regulation of mind altering and habit forming substances.


[1] The US has a larger prison population per capita than any other country

[2] http://www.globalcommissionondrugs.org/

[3] In 2014, the UNODC estimated that people convicted of drug crimes make up about 21% of incarcerated people worldwide. Possession of drugs for individual use was the most frequently reported crime globally. UNODC, 2014, World Crime Trends.

[4] 1839-60 when Britain invaded China to impose its right sell opium