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The Demand for a Massive Drug Policy Change Is Stronger than Ever at the UN This Year

Demands are growing for an overhaul of UN drug policy.
 
 
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An Afghan security force member destroys opium poppy fields in the Noor Gal district of eastern Kunar province on April 13, 2013.
Photo Credit: AFP/Noorullah Shirzada

 
 
 
 

The United Nations'  Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) has wrapped up the High-Level Segment portion of its annual meeting in Vienna. The session revealed schisms among countries about future steps on global drug control even as the global drug bureaucrats gave signs of softening in some policy areas, especially around emphasizing public health as opposed to criminalization.

An indication of relaxation came when a key working group of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime ( UNODC) announced the release of groundbreaking recommendations discouraging criminal sanctions for drug use. The Scientific Consultation Working Group on Drug Policy, Health and Human Rights of the UNODC -- which includes Nora Volkow, head of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) -- released the recommendations as the session got underway. The working group recommendations say 'criminal sanctions are not beneficial' in addressing the spectrum of drug use and misuse.

The meeting ended with a formal  joint ministerial statementagreed to at the last minute after months of contentious wrangling, but one where countries failed to agree on a common approach and where certain fractious issues -- such as the use of the death penalty for drug offenses or even the mention of the term "harm reduction" -- were omitted entirely.

Countries critical of the global drug policy status quo, particularly from Europe and Latin America, were joined by an ever-stronger civil society presence at the CND. The message of reform grows ever louder and presages an especially contentious next step, the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs, set for 2016.

It's not just change in the halls of the UN drug bureaucracies, but changes on the ground that are helping to drive the debate. Uruguay and two US state, Colorado and Washington, have legalized marijuana in apparent contravention of the global drug treaties, and Latin American countries in particular have for several years now expressed growing dismay at the drug war status quo.

Uruguay's decision to legalize marijuana commerce was "not a solution to dealing with the world's drug problem," UN Office on Drugs and Crime ( UNODC) head Yuri Fedotov said just days ago, and the International Narcotics Control Board ( INCB) called the Uruguayan government "pirates" for going up against the UN drug conventions. But the UN drug bureaucrats were singing a slightly softer tune last week in Vienna.

Taking in the discussions in Vienna (idpc.net)

"My impression from the debates so far is that the prevailing mood is to say no to dismantling the provisions of the conventions, but yes to returning to the original spirit of the conventions: protection of health, welfare, and safety of people," Fedotov said in anodyne remarks at the release of the ministerial statement.

"The provisions of the conventions indeed are flexible, human rights based, and founded on the protection of health. I would like particularly to stress the need of strengthening the public health in a comprehensive, balanced, scientific evidence-based approach, that is very important, and fully consistent with human rights standards," Fedotov continued. "There is also a growing need for every country to move away from compulsory treatments and punitive measures and towards embracing these approaches, including protection against HIV/AIDS, as envisaged by the Conventions."

The ministerial statement itself, a compromise document, for the most part blandly supported the existing international drug control regime, although it, too, signaled a shift toward a more public health-oriented approach, and it obliquely referenced ongoing dissent by noting "the ongoing discussions in some regions on how to address the world drug problem, in light of the current situation and policies, and emphasize the importance of a broad, transparent, inclusive and scientific evidence-based discussion among Member States, with inputs from other relevant stakeholders, as appropriate, in multilateral settings, on the most effective ways to counter the world drug problem consistent with the three international drug control conventions…"