Consensus crumbling: report from the UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs

By Richard Elliott, Executive Director


April 29, 2016

It was a surreal exercise that unfolded at the UN in New York last week — a pretend consensus, and a terrible dereliction of duty by some of the world’s governments. And yet, paradoxically, I left the event at the end of the week feeling profoundly encouraged.

On April 19, the assembly president opened the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on “the world drug problem.” It had been hoped the UNGASS process could be an opportunity for a wide-ranging and open debate about what is and isn’t working around the world in responding to drugs. Indeed, more than 1000 leaders from around the world had called on the UN not to squander this historic opportunity to end the failed drug war that has wasted so many resources, led to gross and systemic violations of human rights, and done terrible damage to public health, including fuelling the HIV and hepatitis C epidemics. Yet moments later, the General Assembly adopted by consensus the text of a resolution negotiated, with considerable acrimony, a month before at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna.

And what a resounding failure that formal outcome document is in 2016 — as civil society organizations and the Global Commission on Drug Policy have pointed out. It fails to acknowledge the harm done by decades of punitive prohibition, and the mounting evidence of much more effective, humane approaches. Of course, this outcome is not particularly surprising, given the active and successful efforts of a number of countries to block or significantly weaken any language committing countries to harm reduction approaches or to respecting human rights. (We’re looking at you, Russia — one of the leading offenders.)

Yet, in the bigger picture, I consider the UNGASS process a success — because it has demonstrated convincingly that the supposed international “consensus” in favour of drug prohibition, as embodied most concretely in the three UN treaties on drug control, is crumbling.

All the key UN agencies made formal contributions to the UNGASS deliberations and overwhelmingly in favour of abandoning drug prohibition, and replacing it with evidence-based, health-focussed, human rights-respecting approaches — including decriminalizing possession of drugs for personal use (as has been done successfully in various countries) and scaling up harm reduction and other health services.

An impressive number of countries took the podium in front of the General Assembly to criticize the outcome document for its shortcomings — including its weakness on harm reduction and on human rights. As we had urged, Canada joined a total of 58 countries in a common statement, delivered by the European Union, condemning the death penalty for drug offences as a violation of international human rights law and calling for a moratorium on its application.

And, of course, in this and other ways the mobilization by civil society advocates is having an impact — as was certainly evident in Canada’s engagement.

In recent months, I’ve had the opportunity to meet three times in person with Dr. Jane Philpott, Canada’s health minister — and on each occasion the need for Canada to shift its approach to drug policy, domestically and internationally, has been on the agenda.

We collaborated with the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and other allies to deliver a brief to the new government with 10 recommendations for Canada to take up in the UNGASS negotiations — recommendations ultimately endorsed by more than 100 organizations across the country and reflected, to a significant degree, in Canada’s positions at the UN. And the week before UNGASS, in our opinion piece in The Hill Times, we laid out the case for a new approach by Canada to drug policy, both through needed domestic reforms and through global leadership in advocating for long-overdue reforms to the international drug control treaties.

And so it was that, at the CND in Vienna in March 2016 and at the UN General Assembly in New York the following month, Canada stood out for its clear, principled support of drug laws that respect human rights and of harm reduction — including supervised consumption services, needle and syringe programs, and naloxone for preventing overdose deaths. Also, as widely reported in the press, Minister Philpott reiterated in her speech to the General Assembly Canada’s welcome commitment to moving forward with legalizing and regulating cannabis, and announced an ambitious timeline, with new legislation to be introduced by the spring of next year. (Watch the video of the Minister’s address or read the full text.)

These are all encouraging signs of a new approach to drug policy. But we now need the federal government to implement some concrete legal and policy changes:

  • Repeal the previous government’s ill-conceived law creating unjustified hurdles for operating supervised consumption services, such as Vancouver’s Insite.
  • Implement needle and syringe programs in federal prisons.
  • Abolish mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offences.
  • Decriminalize the possession of all drugs for personal use.

The drug war has failed. The prohibitionist consensus is disintegrating. Despite the best efforts of the obstructionists, the tide is turning.