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Drug Policy Reform from the Bottom-Up: UN Risks Redundancy with Regressive UNGASS Outcome

With the outcome document for the 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the world drug problem now adopted, questions must be asked about its relevance as countries forge ahead with reform at the domestic level.

Roughly two minutes. That is apparently all it took to for all UN member states to formally adopt the UNGASS outcome document on April 19. No debate within the General Assembly – the document had already been hashed out by a select few in Vienna last month, and God forbid anyone disrupt formalities in New York — just states lamenting its language after they’d been complicit in seeing its passage.

Indeed, there is no mention of the term harm reduction, nothing on the death penalty for drug offenses and how abhorrent and illegal this practice is under international human rights law. What’s more, there is nothing on the damage wrought by punitive approaches, the countless human rights abuses committed in the name of drug control, and the opening remarks of the document commit to actively promoting “a society free of drug abuse.” The latter is prima facie progress on the 1998 document’s “drug free world” framing, but UN language has in the past seen abuse and use as synonymous. Thus, is it really any different?

There are some small victories in the document when it’s juxtaposed with the 1998 UNGASS outcome; for example, mention of some specific harm reduction interventions, and the term “human rights” makes it in where it was absent 18 years ago. But, it is not the purpose of this piece to conduct a detailed post mortem on the language.

Rather, when taking everything into consideration — the open discord between member states over drug policy issues and the need for reform, combined with the progressive policies being enacted at the local level in defiance of UN drug control treaties – it begs the question: what is the point of the UNGASS?

The outcome document’s willful ignorance of the political realities and the broken consensus on drug control means it is unlikely to have much meaningful impact on national drug strategies. Indeed, reform is brewing from the bottom-up – outside the confines of New York and Vienna.

More and more countries are exploring implementation or expansion of decriminalization policies related to drug possession offenses, with a number of key UN agencies – from the World Health Organization and UNAIDS, to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime — supporting this approach, yet this is not anywhere close to being recognized in the outcome document. Neither are innovative harm reduction measures such as supervised drug consumption rooms. 

Beyond this, jurisdictions are openly defying the UN treaty system with their regulation of cannabis for recreational use. And, quite frankly, who is going to stop them doing this? Yes, they will be lambasted by the archaic and out of touch International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) but there is no longer a global policeman on drug control given the US’s own contravention of the drug conventions when it comes to cannabis.

On the reverse side, countries that commit human rights abuses in the name of drug control, including executing people for low-level drug offenses, are already violating international human rights law. Had the UNGASS outcome document been bold enough to include strong language against these acts, would it have made any difference? Unlikely. Regressive governments who perpetrate these violations – looking at you here, Indonesia, China, Iran, Russia, and others — would continue to argue they can do whatever they please with pseudo-scientific justification or under the guise of state sovereignty.

It seems clear, then, that the UN is a space that is increasingly irrelevant when it comes to setting the agenda, let alone being capable of actually enforcing a coherent, progressive approach to drugs.

The chorus of voices calling for reform, from countless civil society groups, to dissenting countries and UN agencies, will only continue to grow louder, and reform at the local and national levels will continue to forge ahead, no matter what nonsense is produced within the halls of the UN. 

The UNGASS outcome document, by failing to even acknowledge inter-country tensions, is a shining symbol of how the approach to drug policy outlined in the UN conventions is becoming more and more outdated. The insistence on consensus in the document’s production process means it was always going to be unable to keep up with the growing push towards reform. As a result, more and more countries are moving on without it.

Which ultimately raises the issues of: does the UN matter anymore in this scenario? Should efforts be focused at this level when so much more can be achieved domestically and so many countries will ignore and contravene UN drug control resolutions? Based on everything that transpired on April 19 and the procedural sham that led to it, it appears energies should be diverted to where the real action is occurring — well outside of the UN.

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