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 – and related to the outdated character of several treaty provisions.
The backbone of the United Nations drug control system consists of three UN Drug Conventions. The prohibition of potentially harmful substances has its origin in the desire to protect human well-being. However, the way in which the global regime was set up decades ago and the escalation of repression it has brought about since, has been an historical mistake increasing rather than diminishing the problems. There is no point now in dreaming about how the world might have looked without it, or deluding ourselves that all the problems could be solved by scrapping the conventions. The challenge is to create the political space which would allow a reform process to move ahead. A process guided by pragmatism, open-mindedness and evaluation of practices on the basis of costs and benefits; providing leeway for experimentation and freedom to challenge the wisdom of the existing conventions.
Conflicting views and policies within the UN system on harm reduction have become a major concern. Consistency in messages is crucial especially where it concerns joint global programmes such as the efforts to slow down the HIV/AIDS epidemic; efforts in which harm reduction practices like needle exchange and substitution treatment play a pivotal role.
The review of the objectives and action plans agreed at the 1998 UNGASS on Drugs has reached a critical stage. Following the thematic debate at the 2008 Commission on Narcotic Drugs, and the five expert working groups held in Vienna over the summer, the attention now moves to the political process of negotiating the text of a political declaration to be agreed at the high level meeting in March 2009.
At the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in March 2008 in Vienna three resolutions on cannabis were tabled. They were all clearly against 'lenient policies' in some countries depenalising or decriminalizing the use of cannabis. One of the resolutions called for the criminalization of drug abuse that would have significantly expanded the UN drug conventions.
In March 2008, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) provoked outrage in Bolivia by calling for the elimination of traditional uses of coca, such as chewing coca leaves and drinking coca tea. A new briefing urges to address the current erroneous classification of coca under the UN conventions. It also notes an apparent shift on the issue by the US government and urges the US to formally clarify its position.