In 2012, when the Presidents of Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala called for the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs to be brought forward to 2016, there was a mood of great optimism. Hopes were high that this meeting would allow countries, currently bound by their obligations under the UN Drug Conventions, greater flexibility in dealing with their own drug policies. This was not to be.

Many held hopes that the UN would step back from the ‘war on drugs’ approach and rhetoric, which has dominated international policy and science since 1971. Instead the UN made only minor changes to the existing status quo. The focus remains on supply reduction and sending a message that ‘drugs are bad’. This failure to change the core principles and formulate a new approach means that the almost insurmountable barriers to research will stay in place for the time being. Those hoping for a more evidenced-based approach have been left disappointed, despite growing evidence of the success of alternative approaches, such as in Portugal, Uruguay and elsewhere.

Governments of the world have failed to recognise that the UN Drug Conventions are no longer universally followed. Legal regulation of cannabis is happening in a number of countries, and Canada announced that they would legally regulate cannabis for non-medical use in 2017. The failure to address this shift, frequently referred to as “the elephant in the room” in side-events at UNGASS, risks rendering the UN increasingly insignificant as nation states take unilateral action.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy were “profoundly disappointed” by the entire UNGASS process, a sentiment widely shared throughout civil society and progressive and moderate nations. More disappointing than the lack of substantial progress, and more significant than the minor changes in language, were the frankly absurd and continuously evolving measures that the UN security went to in order to prevent NGOs from accessing the debates. Hundreds of people who have devoted their lives to the improvement of drug policy, and who had spent large portions of already limited budgets to travel to UNGASS, were denied access and a chance to add their voice.

The debate that produced the outcome document was already long finished, in Vienna, before the UNGASS had even begun and was promptly signed and adopted by ‘consensus’ before we heard from dissenting voices such as President Morales of Bolivia, President Pena Nieto of Mexico, President Santos of Colombia as well as Ministers from Canada and the Czech Republic. With so many dissenting voices, one wonders whether there is any value in having a so-called consensus document.

The Outcome Document did achieve some degree of progress. States agreed that drug use is above all a health issue and that the proportionality principle should be used in sentencing. There were also some major failures; Indonesia led a group of countries including China, Singapore, Egypt, Pakistan and Iran in blocking a proposal calling for abolition of the death penalty for drug offences. A major driver for the lack of change was the ease with which regressive countries could block new language. This was exacerbated by the clandestine manner in which negotiations took place, behind closed doors in sessions to which UN accredited NGOs were denied entry.

The big questions went largely unaddressed. What can be done to reduce the harms associated with drug use without creating new problems? How can research help understand the problems better? What would an evidenced-based approach to drug policy look like? The new UNGASS ‘consensus’ document fails to respond to the many challenges to prohibition grounded in health, human rights and development impact. As was recently stated in the Lancet, prohibitionist policies:

“are portrayed and defended vigorously by many policy makers as necessary to preserve public health and safety, and yet the evidence suggests that they have contributed directly and indirectly to lethal violence, communicable-disease transmission, discrimination, forced displacement, unnecessary physical pain, and the undermining of people’s right to health.”

The majority of the discussions at UNGASS are increasingly out of touch with reality. In a separate event in New York immediately preceding UNGASS, the Cannabis Science and Policy Summit, experts gathered from around the world to fiercely debate each other, but hardly anyone asked whether cannabis will be legalized; everyone talked about how. Meanwhile, even the progressive among those in the UN Headquarters continue to endorse the Outcome Document, which purports to be a consensus commitment of the international community to continue criminalizing the market and focusing on ineffective supply reduction measures.

The billions spent, and the many lives lost or ruined, in fighting the war on drugs have not brought success. Yet the international community has, as noted by Colombia’s Justice Minister Yesid Reyes, resolved itself to insanity by continuing to do the same things and expect different results. A drug free world? We cannot hope to achieve such an aim and therefore should take a realist approach based on common sense and scientific evidence.

The UNGASS was a disappointment to both progressives and hardliners alike. Whilst we may decry the small progress in the outcome document, we can find solace in the fact that an increasing number of countries seem intent on acting unilaterally outside the UN Drug Conventions. Principled non-compliance may start to become the norm.

Words: George McBride