What to know about this week’s UN meeting on drugs

Though expectations for this week’s discussions — preparations for which have been years in the making — are disappointingly low, Canada may emerge as a new leader in progressive drug policy. 

By: /
April 18, 2016
A Cannabis plant is pictured at the "Weed the People" event in Portland, Oregon July 3, 2015. REUTERS/Steve Dipaola
Nazlee Maghsoudi

Knowledge Translation Manager at the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy

This week, from April 19 to 21, governments will meet at the United Nations (UN) in New York for the biggest international meeting on drugs since 1998. Canada’s own delegation will be led by Health Minister Jane Philpott. But, with deep divisions on policy approaches and a process rife with problems, can progress be made? 

Here are four things you need to know about the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the “world drug problem.”

1. A global consensus on drugs no longer exists.

More so than ever before, countries are worlds apart in their approaches to drug policy. A growing number of countries are ending the criminalization of drug use, and some are adopting regulated-market models for cannabis. On the other end of the spectrum, a small handful of states are executing people for drug offences, while others are using torture as treatment for people with addictions. When people face the death penalty in some countries for possessing drugs that are legally regulated in others, it is clear that a global consensus on drugs no longer exists.

Yet, countries have been unwavering in their self-imposed reliance on consensus-based decision-making when it comes to drug policy. In other parts of the UN system, votes on key issues are taken whenever they are needed. On matters of drug policy, however, the commitment to consensus has meant that a handful of vocal and regressive countries have been able to block the inclusion of progressive language in the international documents coming out of the UNGASS. As a result, genuine policy tensions that merit honest discussion and debate have fallen to the wayside. 

2. The pending outcome document has already faced criticism.

A lot has changed since 1998, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the text of the outcome document being recommended for adoption at the UNGASS. Agreed at last month’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) meeting in Vienna and unlikely to be renegotiated this week, the outcome document has been criticized for falling short of an honest reflection of the current drug policy environment.

Despite the mountains of evidence that conventional drug policies have failed to meet their goals of reducing the demand and supply of illegal drugs – and have in fact worsened the situation by exasperating violence and creating barriers to health care for people with additions, among other consequences – the outcome document blindly applauds that “tangible progress has been achieved” without an indication of what progress is being referred to. The preamble “reaffirms” and “underlines” the three drug control conventions, and the text even includes a commitment to the goal of “a society free of drug abuse,” resembling the 1998 declaration to pursue a “drug-free world.” The document also omits any mention of the new approaches to drug policy – including cannabis legalization and regulation – that are increasingly being taken around the world. 

Primarily because the text is negotiated by consensus and states have to settle on the lowest common denominator, the outcome document is not substantively different from what was agreed almost 20 years ago. The reality outside the UN walls remains that a growing number of states are beginning to question prohibition and some are unilaterally moving ahead with domestic reforms to better protect public health and safety. The outcome document is a far cry from an accurate portrayal of the global drug policy climate.

3. The preparation process has been beset with problems.

Last year, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged member states to use the UNGASS "to conduct a wide-ranging and open debate that considers all options." However, the non-inclusive and non-transparent nature of the preparatory process has arguably undermined this objective.

Many countries from the global south have been largely unable to participate in the negotiations of the outcome document because they do not have permanent representation in Vienna, where the negotiations were based. The consequence has been the systemic exclusion of at least 70 member states, including most of Africa and the Caribbean, from the debate on global drug policy. Negotiations have also been primarily conducted in closed informal meetings, thereby excluding civil society participation and contributing to the lack of transparency, a long way from the open debate it was meant to be.

Nearly 200 civil society groups from all over the world sounded an alarm about these and other process related problems in a statement made last month in which they warned that the UNGASS was at risk of “representing a serious systemic failure of the UN system” because of the “highly problematic, non-inclusive and non-transparent nature of the preparatory process.”

Now, just a day before the UNGASS takes place, the agenda for the meeting shows that “adoption of the final document” will take place Tuesday morning — before the general debate. Even if mostly symbolic, this is another indication that the flawed process has limited the ability of the UNGASS to be a meaningful debate on global drug policy. 

4. Canada is carefully crafting a position on treaty compliance and cannabis policy reform.

Canada’s statement last month at the CND meeting was a clear indication to the international community that Canada is changing course when it comes to domestic drug policy. The statement included support for evidence-based and human rights compliant drug policies, as well as a strong commitment to harm reduction. However, it was Canada’s comments on their plan to legalize and regulate cannabis that was met with resounding applause.

On any plain reading, legalizing and regulating cannabis is outside of that which is permitted in the international drug control treaties. Yet, Uruguay and the United States have responded to accusations that their domestic cannabis reforms are in violation of the treaties by claiming that, in fact, there is sufficient flexibility in the treaties to permit their legal, regulated markets. Canada seems to be taking a markedly different approach, as their statement at the CND indicated that Canada would align itself with the international drug control treaties “wherever possible.” Canada has set an important international precedent with these two, undoubtedly carefully selected, words: that the treaties will not hold Canada back from adopting drug policies that are in the best interest of Canadians, even if the reforms are in violation of the treaties. This is significant, as any possibilities for reforming the international drug control treaties can only come to bear once countries decide that the treaties are no longer fit for purpose – and that starts with acknowledging that cannabis legalization isn’t permitted. 

This week’s UNGASS meeting, where Canadian Health Minister Jane Philpott is set to lead Canada’s delegation, will be another important moment for Canada to develop and articulate its position on treaty compatibility and cannabis policy reform. If the CND statement is any indication, Canada won’t shy away from acknowledging that a legal, regulated market for cannabis is outside the treaties.