Diplomacy or denialism? International statement highlights problems with world drug policy meetings

March 14, 2016

This week, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) is convening in Vienna to prepare for the highly anticipated UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the “world drug problem,” which will take place next month (April 19–21) in New York. The last UNGASS on drugs was in 1998, under the banner of a “drug-free world,” to be achieved largely through more repressive drug laws and their enforcement. But the complete absurdity of this goal has been demonstrated — sadly, the evidence includes countless deaths and ruined lives. Now, after almost two decades of suffering the effects of the devastating “war on drugs,” more and more states are joining civil society organizations in demanding a more rational, evidence-based and human rightsfriendly approach instead of the current punitive system.

But unfortunately, the process to date shows just how dysfunctional and resistant to change the international drug control system is. The countries of the CND were tasked with drafting an “outcome document” for adoption by the UN General Assembly. It was to be an inclusive process, resulting in “substance” and an “action-oriented” document with operational recommendations for addressing long-standing and emerging challenges of “the world drug problem.” The reality so far has been a flawed and contentious process that not only has sidelined a majority of UN member states, but also risks being largely a costly, pointless and ultimately damaging recitation of the same failed policies.

A statement released on Monday, March 14 and endorsed by nearly 200 civil society organizations (including the Legal Network) is calling on member states, including those cut out of the drafting process, to challenge the draft document and to publicly express their disappointment in the process. As the statement concludes, “The UNGASS is a unique opportunity to take a stand and demonstrate leadership for drug policy reform, as we simply cannot continue with the same failed approach.”

These two meetings are also important from a Canadian perspective, as they are the first international forums in which Canada’s new federal government has an opportunity to signal a change in tone and direction regarding the country’s stance on illegal drugs and drugs policy. With the new government’s stated commitment to harm reduction domestically, and Prime Minister Trudeau’s commitments to legalize and regulate cannabis, there is hope that we will also see a change in Canada’s approach to such issues on the international stage.

Initial signs of a shift in tone from Canadian officials are good, but this shift must be more than merely theoretical. Canada’s new government must become a serious and principled player at the international drug policy table. To this end, we have submitted, jointly with the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition (and a working group of more than a dozen civil society groups across the country), a brief to Canada’s Minister of Health. Through 10 clear recommendations, we are asking Canada’s new government to become a more constructive actor on the international stage. Canada can and should be a champion of issues such as harm reduction, human rights, flexibility for countries seeking to legalize and regulate cannabis (and other drugs), access to medicines, the need for better indicators to assess drug policy (health, development and human rights indicators, for example, rather than just reporting on drug arrests, seizures, prosecutions, etc.), and so on. Canada could become a key international player if it is willing to seize this opportunity to lead.