Damp Squib?

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You wait nearly 20 years for an UNGASS on global drug policy and then… well, not much. See below for the sector’s reactions to last month’s event in New York, but first DDN hears from one of the architects of President Obama’s drug policy 

When UNODC executive director Yury Fedotov told the closing of the 2016 UN General Assembly special session (UNGASS) on the world drug problem that ‘We must take advantage of the momentum provided by UNGASS to strengthen cooperation and advance comprehensive, balanced, integrated rights-based approaches’, people could be forgiven for asking how much momentum there really was.

Reactions have ranged from cautiously optimistic to uninspired, disappointed to enraged – particularly around the content of the session’s ‘outcome document’. This, according to the Global Commission on Drug Policy, serves merely to sustain an ‘unacceptable and outdated legal status quo’.

The document has been attacked for its failure to address capital punishment, sufficiently advocate harm reduction approaches or acknowledge the ongoing process of drug policy reform occurring across the world. It also talks about ‘a society free of drug abuse’, something that the International HIV/AIDS Alliance called ‘a dangerous and distorting fantasy’, while Transform branded it a ‘shocking betrayal’ of the countries that had most wanted the UNGASS to take place – Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala. ­

Although the session did see Canada’s health minister announce plans to introduce a legalised, regulated cannabis market, the main source of dis­appoint­ment with the document was its failure to offer proposals to, in the words of the Global Commission, ‘regulate drugs and put governments – rather than criminals – in control’. In other words, a significant move towards decriminalisation or legalisation.

That, according to former senior drug policy advisor at the White House and now professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, Keith Humphreys (DDN, June 2012, page 16), was never really on the cards. ‘I think it was a fantasy to think there would be big change,’ he tells DDN. ‘I think some groups may have convinced people in fundraising, and maybe convinced themselves, that the world was going to legalise drugs in New York, and that was ludicrous. For years it was said, “Everyone wants to legalise drugs and it’s just the big mean United States standing in the way”.

The United States didn’t stand in the way and it turns out nobody wants to do that, except for cannabis – and not all countries want to with cannabis.’

Rather than the UN, the real obstacle to legalisation is ‘popular opinion in all the nations of the world,’ he argues. ‘In the US the majority of people want to legalise cannabis, but less than 10 per cent want to legalise heroin or cocaine – there’s been no general spreading of that sentiment. If you look at polls of young people in Europe, they don’t want to; if you look at polls of people in the Latin countries that are being hammered, they don’t want to legalise drugs other than cannabis. So it isn’t surprising, and it isn’t this evil thing being imposed on the world.’

But doesn’t the roster of ex-presidents and prime ministers calling for reform represent something of a groundswell of opinion? ‘The Global Commission, I think, actually shows how unaccepted those views are,’ he says. ‘I know a number of these people are ex-leaders, but when former leaders call for something the question you should always ask is, “Why didn’t they run for office on this platform?” You didn’t run for this and you didn’t do it when you were in office because you knew the public wouldn’t like it. You can get 100 NGOs or whatever, but how many funders are there for those 100 NGOs? Are there really 100 different funders, or are there a couple of wealthy people who care about this? And that’s fine, but it’s not a constituency. The checkout line at Waitrose, plus George Soros, is not a constituency.’

Those advocating legalisation tend to ‘live in a bubble, and talk to each other a lot’, he says. So are they being naïve or disingenuous, in that case? ‘I think there’s a third option, which is that they don’t care, and I don’t mean that as an insult. Someone told me recently, “Yes, use will go up – who cares?” and I respect that. What they’re saying is, it’s worth it. “Yes, there’ll be a lot more drug use, a lot more addiction, but that’s not my problem – I’m fighting for human rights”, or “I’m fighting for the free market, for business peoples’ right to make a living”.’

Legalisation arguments can be persuasive, he says, because it’s a case of the grass is always greener. ‘Doing things differently often sounds good when things aren’t going well, but still it seems that most people just don’t buy it, in part because we have a pretty good experience of how sales and capitalism work – not just with tobacco and alcohol, but for anything.

‘If you got rid of the UN treaties and held a plebiscite in any nation on earth – including the Latin American countries – and said, “Do you want this to be a legal, corporate industry?” people would say no. What’s standing in the way is democracy, and what’s making cannabis legal is also democracy. If you have the popular will, then these things are not a barrier.’



It may not have delivered any major shifts, but the mood remains cautiously optimistic. DDN hears what some key players thought of the UNGASS


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‘To have the document adopted in just two minutes, prior to any serious debate, underscores a key question – what, indeed, was the purpose of the meeting other than theatre? Having said that, what followed the adoption was encouraging since a number of countries openly lamented the failures of the document, from no call to abolish the death penalty to a lack of mention for the terms ‘harm reduction’ and ‘decriminalisation’, and complete refusal to acknowledge emerging regulated markets for cannabis. This in turn raises another question – why did these countries sign up to the document only to criticise it immediately after?’

– Niamh Eastwood


‘Our expectations for UNGASS were always modest, and we never anticipated the kind of transformational event that some were hoping for. Our main priorities were always to ensure that pre-existing commitments on harm reduction were defended and not rolled back, so that the UNGASS resolution could provide a foundation to build towards real progress at the UN high-level meeting on HIV in June. This must now move forward and tackle the global funding crisis for harm reduction, and address the fact that we have failed to meet the 2015 target of halving HIV infections among people who inject drugs by a staggering 80 per cent.’

– Rick Lines


‘I never thought anything would happen at UNGASS. They vote on the resolution at the beginning of the meeting and then it’s all speeches, so it really is a talking shop.’

– Keith Humphreys


‘The mood of civil society organ­is­ations has been positive over­all. Of course there are frustrations with the outcome document because it doesn’t acknowledge that punitive drug control has been catastrophically damag­ing and unfortunately reaffirms a commitment to society free of drug abuse. However, there is some progress that was hard won which we must acknowledge, around improving access to controlled medicines and the need for proportion­ate sentencing for drug offences.’

– Ann Fordham


‘The outcome document had some welcome language on human rights, harm reduction and access to essential medicines but was generally a huge disappointment because it was watered down and heavily caveated by the need for consensus – any really challenging content or progressive language was vetoed by the more conservative member states. This was probably most obvious with an issue like the death penalty for drug offences – clearly illegal under international law to which all member states are party to, and already subject to a General Assembly moratorium – yet the states that are still doing it vetoed any mention of it in the document. Utterly ridiculous. Consensus policy-making can seem like a nice idea but can also be profoundly undemocratic, and favour the status quo by default – achieving change in that environment can be almost impossible.’

– Steve Rolles


‘The main and most important difference was the huge shift in the debate. Serious discussions of drug reform, decriminalisation, regulation etcetera, are all now a legitimate part of the debate among UN member states, and the tone of those discussions is so different than what was the case even five years ago at the UN. While this is not sufficient, clearly policy change will only come when these issues enter the mainstream of policy discourse, and this is clearly happening.’

– Rick Lines


‘The debate on the floor in the plenary and side events was very dynamic and positive. Country after country stood up and criticised the outcome document’s shortcomings, and many raised key current issues like decriminalisation and legalisation, and structural reform of the UN treaty system, which the outcome document did not engage with at all. The narrative was very much moving away from a punitive approach towards one of health and human rights, and when old-school drug warrior rhetoric emerged it seemed from another time.’

– Steve Rolles


If we look at other difficult policy areas, whether that be the refugee crisis, global warming or the war in Syria, the UN does not generally show leadership largely because of individual member states’ own views. It must be remembered that the UN is the sum of its parts, not an individual entity in and of itself. Multi-lateral agencies are not the best places to sow the seeds for regional or international reform, largely because of individual member states’ own views and interests generally being paramount. This was evidenced by the statements made by Russia and many of the Asian countries, who continue to push for punitive responses to drug use and supply, despite the human rights abuses that are apparent in many of these states.’

– Niamh Eastwood


‘The last shreds of the pretence of a global consensus were ripped away as countries completely disagreed with one another via their country statements, with some explicitly stating that global drug policy had failed while others – and this group is getting smaller, although still includes powerful states like Russia – talked of the need to intensify the war on drugs.’

– Ann Fordham


‘We were very pleased by the high profile given to the death penalty de­bate, and the large number of member states voicing explicit opposition to the practice. Despite its weaknesses, the outcome document does contain the strongest human rights provision ever agreed in a UN drug control resolution. So that is also progress.’

– Rick Lines


‘Probably one of the most depress­ing moments was when Indonesia said that their drug laws – which involve the use of the death penalty – were compliant with international human rights. This was moments after a colleague from an Indonesian NGO who represents those sentenced to the death penalty had eloquently outlined the horror faced by those who have been, or are waiting to be, executed by firing squad for low-level drug offences.’

– Niamh Eastwood


‘After a week of listening to the debates in New York, it’s clear that things have shifted. More and more governments are openly voicing their displeasure with the dominant punitive approach to drugs. Having the UNGASS this year has helped to build important momentum for change, bringing many new voices calling for reform, such as other UN agencies and new actors, into the reform community – from criminal justice, development, peace building, palliative care, human rights, racial justice and religious groups.’

– Ann Fordham


‘Nine countries stood up in front of the world and called for legalisation. That may not be many, but it’s nine more than last time and shows how far we’ve come. It’s not a taboo any more, and if the UN system doesn’t show some flexibility they will continue to imple­ment the reforms anyway and the UN drug control system will drift into irrele­vance. It’s a case of reform or die really.’

– Steve Rolles


‘It is reform nationally that will ultimately change the international regime.’

Niamh Eastwood


‘The UK government’s message to the UN is right – robust investment and light-touch enforcement is the path forward – but those words will ring hollow if we fail to heed them at home.’

– Paul Hayes, head, Collective Voice


‘It is clear that new metrics and indicators should be developed in the sphere of drug policy, aligning global policy with the sustainable development goals, and that guidelines should be produced that reflect the socio-economic foundations of involvement in the drugs trade. In this way, the UNGASS can make moves towards effectively dealing with the challenges posed by drug usage and mend some of the damage caused by a costly and failed war on drugs.’

– Yasmin Batliwala


‘This UNGASS was a success when looking outside of the UN itself as it served as a key opportunity to publicly scrutinise failed drug policies, something which the mainstream media did reasonably well, by and large.’

– Niamh Eastwood  


‘The countries seeking change didn’t get what they wanted at UNGASS but their resolve has only stiffened, along with the solidarity between reform-minded states, and with the growing reform momentum and change on the ground they will doubtless regroup and come back stronger – with an emboldened and empowered civil society supporting them all the way. Progress can happen at multiple levels – public debate, national reforms and in multilateral agencies, and is mutually supportive. So we need to keep pushing on all those fronts.’

– Steve Rolles