UNGASS ten years on

01 March 2008

Weaknesses in the United Nations drug control system have often been identified, related to the functioning of the key organs – the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), and the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) –, related to collaboration with the wider UN system – the World Health Organistaion (WHO), UNAIDS, UN Development Programme (UNDP), etc. – and related to the outdated character of several treaty provisions.

  • What has been attempted to date to achieve more structural reform?
  • Are existing evaluation mechanisms capable of bringing the need for reform to the table?

Tensions have arisen about the way the INCB performs its duties and about its legal interpretation of the conventions. INCB reports and letters have condemned policy practices that the concerned countries consider to be defendable. The conventions describe the Board’s mission explicitly in terms of co-operation and dialogue.

  • Is the INCB overstepping its mandate?
  • How could a neutral and evidence-based role of UNODC as a centre of expertise be strengthened?
  • How can these issues be related to the UN call for more ‘system-wide coherence’ and ‘delivery as one’?


The international drug control system has been in continuous evolution since 1961. While the Single Convention focused on the cultivation of plants with narcotic properties, the 1971 Convention was created by the wish of the pharmaceutical companies to keep psychotropic drugs separate. The 1988 Convention introduced the crime of drug money laundering but also obliged member states to criminalise a wide range of drug-related activities.

In 1993, with all three conventions in place and with the expiry of the transitional period of 25 years established under the 1961 convention, a three-day high level meeting was held during the General Assembly. The tone was set by a letter from Mexico, which pointed out that that illicit cultivation was continuing, drug consumption had increased and criminal organisations were expanding. It made reference to a variety of issues such as precursors, money laundering and alternative development, and mentioned the need to review drug classification with reference to WHO, alluding to the possibility of cannabis being taken out of the conventions altogether. It also requested that more attention be given to the demand for drugs.

This marked the beginning of the move towards a ‘more balanced’ approach. The early 1990s was a period of increasing polarisation across the world. It was clear that the aims of the conventions had not been met and that the market was growing rather than shrinking. Tougher sanctions were imposed through a wave of repressive legislation. The message was, “the 1988 convention has teeth but now we have to make it bite”. At the same time many European countries were starting a harm reduction approach, and were applying more leniency with regard to cannabis. In the same period WHO had two research programmes running on coca issues and cannabis. The findings of these research projects were viewed with outrage by many governments.

INCB’s annual report for 1994 highlighted a number of outdated provisions and contradictions within the conventions. An advisory committee was set up to look at how the drug control system could be improved. It recommended that the status of coca and cannabis be re-examined, and suggested looking more closely at harm reduction and decriminalisation policies. However CND decided not to implement any of the recommendations of the advisory group and INCB’s list of recommendations to resolve the contradictions in the conventions was never acted on.

In the end the ‘reconsider’ lobby was neutralised. Some of Mexico’s concerns were eventually addressed at the 1998 UNGASS, when the principle of alternative development was accepted for the first time, and when a precursors action plan and the Guiding Principles on demand reduction were introduced.

With the 2008 UNGASS evaluation the dilemma is with us again : to reconsider or reaffirm. There has clearly been a stabilisation of the market, although ‘containment’ may not be the appropriate description. Harm reduction has become more widespread, largely due to HIV/AIDS, but prison populations have increased. Inside the broader UN system there has been a debate on UN reform and system wide coherence. With regard to drugs, inconsistencies have worsened. Several problems need to be addressed:

1. Harm reduction. Part of the UN (the larger part) uses the language and practice of harm reduction as a matter of course, whereas under pressure from the US, UNODC, INCB and CND do not.

2. UN coherence and responsibilities. There is more tension now between INCB and WHO over scheduling issues (eg over Khat, dronabinol/delta-9-THC) where WHO has the primary responsibility.

3. The tensions between the drug control treaties and practices and other UN treaties, principles and practices – for example human rights violations in the context of drug law enforcement. The UN drug agencies do nothing to prevent these.

4. The transparency of the UN drug control process and the associated NGO community. All UN agencies have established procedures for NGO participation and transparency of procedures, including the availability of documents, while the drug agencies still have a poor record in this regard.

Problem contained ?

The UNODCs Executive Director’s report on the UNGASS evaluation will almost certainly state that the drug consumption problem has been contained. It will be argued that most goals have been achieved, that there have been great advances in money laundering, in precursor legislation and in treatment availability. The truth is that
consumption has grown in countries where before it was insignificant. Containment is not a satisfactory answer, and patterns of consumption are very complex.

Colombian government officials acknowledge privately that current drug policies do not work, and at the 2008 CND Colombia may say that eradication is not a valid policy. Many Colombians think cocaine should be legalised. An alternative solution must be found, which should include a debate about causality and about why both coca and opium are concentrated in very few countries. If this is not done the errors of the past will be repeated.

Some 15 years ago the big Colombian cartels were destroyed. The new cartels were fragmented and they subcontracted out their armed services. Left and right wing paramilitary groups became involved. From being run by mafia-type drug lords, now the organisations are run by warlords who use funds to reinforce territorial control. This is not containment. Solving the problem has become much more difficult.

Data problems

The evaluation will try to focus on results, but UNODC’s data are very contradictory, and it can only use data provided by governments. If one takes the figures at face value Colombia has eradicated more coca cultivation than estimates of cultivation pre-eradication, so there should be none left. In Colombia every sprayed crop is
counted as eradicated, and this system leads to errors of double counting. The basis for the ‘containment’ conclusion is based on BRQ answers, but these cannot be trusted. UNODC does not have the capability to ensure that BRQs are properly completed, and has no means of knowing the basis on which answers are made. Responding countries do not use the same methodologies and there are wide inconsistencies. The mandate for the World Drug Report states that it should be ‘authoritative, objective and scientific’, but UNODC does not have enough staff to do serious statistical analysis.

The Expert Working Group seems to have concluded that the BRQ is not a good instrument and does not give a basis for impact assessment. On the positive side, it has caused a focus on demand reduction in countries where this did not exist before. One should be cautious in disparaging the BRQ because many countries will use this
as an excuse to do nothing.

UNODC, crime and terrorism

There is a tendency within UNODC to focus more on terrorism and to move drug issues into this field. If the shift continues UNODC will have a completely new dynamic: the name and organisational focus will shift towards terrorism, crime and drug control, because this is where the money is. While drug control should not be seen through primarily through a crime prism, the Crime Commission is strongly rooted in human rights issues, and this approach could be useful. The five-yearly crime congress could even be a model for meetings with a wider range of participants.

In the UK drugs is called a ‘cross cutter’ because it affects all parts of society and is seen through the different perspectives of young people, health and crime. A powerful coordination mechanism exists to resolve tensions between them. The problem is that in the UN system there is no such mechanism for drug control, but this could be a recommendation for 2008-9. Alternatively, rather than create a new inter-agency coordination body, UNODC could be asked to integrate WHO and UNAIDS expertise into its work and into CND meetings to a greater extent.

It is recommended that:

• The functioning and mandate of INCB be examined, and the boundaries of its mandate established;
• The mandate of WHO, which was largely taken away in the early 1990s, should be re-established and its authority at CND meetings reaffirmed.
• The capacity of UNODC to undertake statistical analysis should be strengthened.
• A study should be made of the relationship between UN drug control and other UN treaties, and of certain legal aspects of the conventions. The aim should be to bring more rationality and evidence into the debate.