The Lancet - On April 19–21, 2016, the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) will convene to chart a course for the future to tackle the world's drugs problem. The 2016 UNGASS represents a rare opportunity to reassess the global approach to drugs and to move towards drug policies that more effectively address the three UN pillars of peace and security, human development, and human rights. We believe that we need a new consensus that includes a commitment to revise the range of indicators used to assess and improve drug policy effectiveness.
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.
The 48th session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), 7-11 March 2005 in Vienna, was plagued by controversy about the legitimacy of harm reduction policies. Ending in stalemate, guidance for UNODC to operate in this field remains ambiguous. In June, at the Programme Coordinating Board (PCB), a consensus was reached regarding a mandate for UNAIDS to be involved in needle exchange programmes and other harm reduction activities among injecting drug users. What options are available to clarify UNODC’s mandate in this area and more in general to achieve a breakthrough in policy dilemmas that surfaced recent years at the UN level.
Numerous UN conferences and summits have been devoted to negotiating a harmonized global approach to illicit drugs. Yet more and more cracks are beginning to appear in the supposedly universal model which is based on a highly fragile consensus. The failure to counter the ever-growing problems related to the use of illicit drugs has led countries to question current policies and to experiment with approaches less driven by the US-inspired ideology of "zero tolerance" and more rooted in pragmatism. This has led to increasing acceptance of the concept of harm reduction for consumers, where drug use is treated as a public health rather than a law enforcement problem. On the production side, discussion centers on the need to secure alternative livelihoods for involved farmer communities and how to most effectively promote alternative development.
Meetings of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) are no forum for debate and change. The author, a former senior officer of the United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP), shows how CND meetings are manipulated in the interests of 17 developed countries that largely fund UNDCP – the CND’s ‘civil service’. However, these major donors are not united on policy or on how to apply the UN drug Conventions, so CND decisions reflect the lowest level of disagreement, with major splits on policy ignored.