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Everything You Need to Know About What Happened at the UN Drug Convention

What could have been a chance for the world to take a progressive approach to drugs ended up as a huge waste of time.

Collage by Marta Parszeniew

Drugs being illegal is exactly what criminals want. Relinquish control of the narcotics market by just outright banning everything, rather than decriminalizing and regulating it, and undesirable individuals, gangs, and cartels swoop in, making mammoth profits and indiscriminately slaughtering vast numbers of people in the process.

Bizarrely, that system has been at play for decades now. You'd have thought there might already be some kind of multinational effort in place to disrupt the balance, but you'd be wrong. The last high-level debate about drugs was held at the UN in 1998, and the conclusion back then was to continue forging ahead with the War on Drugs: to create a "drug-free world."


How anyone genuinely believed that was achievable is hard to fathom. Were world leaders way more optimistic pre-Y2K? Had they paid literally no attention to what was going on in their countries? By 1998, there had already been tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of drug-related deaths in Colombia alone, which would have been pretty hard to miss.

So it seemed like good news when it was announced that a UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) would be taking place at the UN headquarters in New York this week. Reform campaigners hoped that world leaders may finally decide to take a progressive approach to the issue, in the knowledge that the status quo clearly isn't working.

However, the three-day summit wrapped up yesterday and doesn't seem to have made much of a difference at all. Hardliner countries stifled any kind of meaningful discussion, and everyone left in much the same place they'd started.

Here's a short rundown of the big points you might have missed.


The problem, I suppose, with gathering loads of countries together for a chat is that lots of them will have wildly disparate views on how shit should be handled.

Sure enough, this immediately proved to be a problem. Debate over the actual commitments countries were going to make was mostly done in Vienna in March, resulting in an "outcome document" that was adopted on the first day of this week's summit. This document didn't include any criticism of the death penalty, instead stating that countries should ensure punishments are "proportionate" to the crimes committed.


This, unsurprisingly, prompted a fair bit of debate.

"Disproportional penalties […] create vicious cycles of marginalization and further crime," said Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, with several other delegates making the point that capital punishment is a violation of human rights. "Norway intends to be a clear voice for a more progressive approach," said the nation's delegate.

Indonesia—one of the countries still using capital punishment for drug offenses—was booed for calling the death penalty an "important component" of its drug policy, before suggesting decisions about methods of punishment should be decided by individual states.

The physical and mental health implications associated with drug abuse were also touched upon, with UNODC figures revealing that there are an estimated 27 million people worldwide suffering from some form of drug disorder.

Photo by David Hudson


Day two was all about round-table discussions, on topics ranging from synthetic drugs to heroin treatment.

First up: synthetics. The analogues of traditional drugs like coke, weed, and MDMA. Your Go-Caines, Spices, and Gee-Whizzes. An initial round-table discussion identified the challenges posed by the ever-evolving synthetic drug market, which is now affecting more than 100 countries. Much of what was said is stuff we already know: synthetic drugs are highly risky because of the wide variety available and the fact that the chemical compositions are often altered to swerve legislation. Multiple speakers voiced concern over the marketing of these kinds of drugs to a younger generation of internet users, who know how to navigate the dark web and the drug markets you'll find there. The question of regulation was raised, but nobody said anything particularly decisive.


Another discussion, about how to treat heroin addiction, was equally unproductive. The event, which was sponsored by the Russian Federation, started out with diplomats and scientists from around the world stating the important of evidence-based drug treatment. But then a doctor from the Russian Federation popped up and disagreed with everyone, arguing that cold turkey was the best way to go.

"It's too ironic for Russia to be the sponsor of the event," said Daniel Wolfe, director of the International Harm Reduction Program for the Open Society Foundations. "They're the world leader in denying the science."


As Virgin boss and reform campaigner Richard Branson pointed out: "UNGASS was flawed from the start." An agreement had already been made, and that agreement was to continue with prohibitionist policies that ban drug use and criminalize users. Policies that, historically, have never worked—and realistically never will.

Ultimately, this UN summit did more to discredit the usefulness of the UN than anything else. In all likelihood, as Nick Clegg pointed in an interview with VICE ahead of UNGASS, "Because the hardliners have been allowed to hijack this process, reformers will think, 'To hell with the UN system, let's just get on with our own experiment.'"

While that might be a good thing for countries with progressive leaders, it's certainly no win for people whose governments are still taking an anachronistic approach to drugs.