For more than ten years, TNI’s Drugs & Democracy programme has been studying the UN drug control conventions and the institutional architecture of the UN drug control regime. As we approach the 2016 UNGASS, this primer is a tool to better understand the role of these conventions, the scope and limits of their flexibility, the mandates they established for the CND, the INCB and the WHO, and the various options for treaty reform.
Preparations are gathering pace for the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs, to be held on the 19th to 21st April 2016 in New York. Following several months of discussion on procedural elements, attention is now focused on negotiating the content of the "short, substantive, concise and action-orientated outcome document comprising a set of operational recommendations" to be approved by the General Assembly next April. At the CND intersessional meeting on 12th June, countries and regional groups were invited to submit their first ideas for what could be included in this Outcome Document, by a deadline of 11th September.
The international drug control regime is facing the most profound challenge of its existence. Member states have for some time been experimenting with new responses to the ‘world drug problem’; however, the advent of legally regulated cannabis markets has resulted in a ratcheting up of these challenges to expose the system to new levels of strain. With the 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the world drug problem fast approaching, how will the international community make use of the opportunity it provides for a free and open debate?
The war on drugs is edging towards a truce. Half of Americans want to lift the ban on cannabis. America’s change of heart has led many to wonder if the UN conventions might be reformed to legalise some drugs and treat the use of others as a problem requiring health measures, not criminal or military ones. But as America has drawn back from prohibition, new drug warriors are stepping up to defend it. Russia is foremost among them. “The Russians have taken over the hard-line role that the US used to play,” says Martin Jelsma of the Transnational Institute.
Global disagreement over drug policies provides an important opportunity to reconsider the effectiveness of existing counternarcotics policies, address their problematic side effects, and propose evidence-based alternative strategies. Because of the differences in attitudes on drug policy around the world, a substantial revision of existing counternarcotics treaties is unlikely at UNGASS 2016. (See also: Improving global drug policy: Comparative perspectives and UNGASS 2016)
On 19th to 21st April 2016, there will be a United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) held in New York, dedicated to the issue of drug policy. The General Assembly is the highest policy making and representative organ of the United Nations (UN), and its infrequent Special Sessions focus on pertinent topics at the request of member states. The UNGASS on drugs has the potential to be a ground-breaking, open debate about the international drug control system – but there is much work to be done to ensure that it fulfils that potential.
Minister of Industry, Investment and Commerce, Anthony Hylton, says Jamaica intends to lead a charge in the United Nations to effect changes to the international treaties concerning marijuana. The aim is to change the schedule class of marijuana in light of scientific studies that have proven its therapeutic benefits and medicinal value. "Jamaica intends to participate, and to lead, if necessary, a process in the United Nations to have those treaties amended," Hylton said.
Just over one year away from the 2016 UNGASS, denying the reality that the drug policy landscape has fundamentally changed and that tensions with the UN drug conventions are occuring, is no longer a credible option. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged member states to use the 2016 UNGASS on drugs "to conduct a wide-ranging and open debate that considers all options." TNI calls for a special advisory group that should be tasked with recommending how to better deal with the contentious issues following the 2016 UNGASS, in preparation for the next UN high-level review in 2019.
The Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna will decide next week between two opposite proposals by China and the WHO about international control of ketamine, an essential anaesthetic in human and veterinary medicine. China originally proposed bringing ketamine under the 1971 Convention’s most severe control regime of Schedule I, which would dramatically affect its availability for surgery in poor rural settings and emergency situations. The WHO Expert Committee reviewed all the evidence and advised against any international control of ketamine, arguing it would trigger a public health disaster.
As the call for the decriminalisation of drugs steadily picks up steam worldwide, a new study by the London-based charity Health Poverty Action concludes there has been no significant reduction in the global use of illicit drugs since the creation of three key U.N. anti-drug conventions, the first of which came into force over half a century ago. “Illicit drugs are now purer, cheaper, and more widely used than ever,” says the report, titled Casualties of War: How the War on Drugs is Harming the World’s Poorest.
The UN Commission considers to bring ketamine under the control of the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances contrary to WHO recommendations. The 58th Session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in March 2015 has been asked to consider a Chinese proposal to place ketamine – an essential medicine used for anaesthesia – in Schedule I of the 1971 Convention (E/CN.7/2015/7 and E/CN.7/2015/81). Ketamine is the only available anaesthetic for essential surgery in most rural areas of developing countries, home to more than 2 billion of the world’s people. Scheduling ketamine under any of the 1971 treaty schedules will reduce its availability and further deepen the already acute crisis of global surgery.
The United Nations drug control conventions of 1960 and 1971 and later additions have inadvertently resulted in perhaps the greatest restrictions of medical and life sciences research. These conventions now need to be revised to allow neuroscience to progress unimpeded and to assist in the innovation of treatments for brain disorders. In the meantime, local changes, such as the United Kingdom moving cannabis from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2, should be implemented to allow medical research to develop appropriately.
These are interesting times for drug law reform, which, as it gathers pace, is asking important questions of international law. A UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs is set for 2016 just as national reforms are challenging international treaties that form the bedrock of a global prohibition regime that has dominated since the turn of the twentieth century. States parties to the three UN drug control conventions must now confront the legal and political dilemmas this creates. This is the situation in which the US now finds itself following cannabis reforms in various states that are at odds with these treaties.
Writing in 1996, Norbert Gilmore noted that ‘little has been written about drug use and human rights. Human rights are rarely mentioned expressly in drug literature and drug use is rarely mentioned in human rights literature.’  Almost twenty years later, the literature examining drug control issues through the lens of international human rights law has grown, but the total body of peer reviewed commentary and analysis in this area would barely rank the issue as a footnote in the broader human rights lexicon.
An October statement on drug control from the US State Department has prompted much comment and speculation at home and abroad. Delivered by Ambassador William Brownfield, the ‘Brownfield Doctrine’, as it has been named by some commentators, lays out a four pillar approach the United States will follow in matters of international drug control.