Will This Week's UN General Assembly Accept the War on Drugs Has Failed?

On Tuesday 193 member states of the UN will convene in New York to discuss drugs. Sadly, their draft document indicates they're still hung up on backwards policies.

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18 April 2016, 12:00am

Illustration by Ashley Goodall

Fifty years on, the war on drugs has seen little benefit other than an increased availability of narcotics worldwide at more affordable prices . The illegality of these substances has created a huge black market that benefits heavy criminals at the top, and incarcerates countless citizens at the bottom. And as the drug using population continues to grow , so too does stigma. This has pushed drug use underground, which created all sorts of flow-on effects including the spread of HIV and hepatitis C.

It's for these reasons that many are looking towards Tuesday's UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs as an opportunity to bring about change. From April 19 to 21, the 193 member states of the UN will convene at the General Assembly in New York. Originally scheduled for 2019, the conference has been brought forward due to an urgent call by the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico: nations at the increasingly violent frontline of the drug war.

Indeed, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan sees this meeting as a "chance to change course " and is calling for an evidence-based approach to drugs, leading to a legal regulated market.

However, the drafting of the UNGASS outcome document over the last six months at the conservative Vienna-based Commission on Narcotics Drugs has been widely criticised. The process excludes all UN agencies—except for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime—as well as civil society organisations. And successive drafts haven't produced anything progressive. They've simply been restating past policy approaches , with a heavy influence from regressive nations led by Russia.

The UNGASS document focuses upon "the world drug problem" and this—according to Eliot Albers, executive director of the International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD)—is where they've got it wrong. "There is no 'world drug problem,' but rather there is a world drug policy problem," Eliot told VICE. He also believes it's a problem discussing a "world drug problem," without defining what that actually means.

Harm reduction strategies are designed to reduce the negative outcomes of drug use. These include needle and syringe programs, supervised injecting facilities, opioid substitution and pill testing at music festivals. Many of these methods are already being implemented around the world. And the numerous civil society organisations associated with UNGASS have been calling for these programs to be high on the agenda.

But a major flaw of the UNGASS outcome document is that it reserves discussion of harm reduction methods to just one paragraph and, as Albers explained, the actual words "harm reduction" appear nowhere in the document. He noted that when it does recommend the integration of such programs into a country's healthcare system, the document includes the clause "where appropriate and in accordance with national legislation," which Albers translated as, "Don't worry, you don't have to provide harm reduction programs, if you don't want to."

In many ways, the UNGASS meeting will only serve to rubber stamp the outcome document. That's how Dr Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, sees it. This, he believes, will be a major victory for the drug policy denialists but is only "delaying the inevitable," as the collapse of drug prohibition is already underway.

According to him, this is demonstrated by the numerous major drug law reforms that are currently being passed around the world. These include four US states and the nation's capital voting to legalise recreational marijuana use over recent years, while in 2013 Uruguay became the first country to do so nationwide. In 2011, Bolivia withdrew from the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs so they could re-establishtheir traditional coca leaf industry. They were then able to reaccede to the treaty two years later, once it had been amended.

In the doctor's view, the three international drug treaties that underpin the global drug control system are fast becoming outdated. "They're what we might call 'paper tigers,'" Wodak said. And this has been highlighted by William Brownfield, "the most senior US government official able to comment on drug policy." In 2014, he stated that nations that have signed the treaties must " accept flexible interpretation of those conventions."

Wodak added that what UNGASS will firmly demonstrate is "that the international drug policy consensus is irreparably broken." He's also criticised the Australian government for being less than transparent about who will be representing the nation or what their policy platform will be.

And although the outcomes of this year's UN conference on drugs are yet to be known, we do know that the goals of earlier meetings haven't been met. The 1998 UNGASS set the goal for a "drug-free" world by 2008, using the drug war model. However, as many critics have since highlighted, all this achieved was an increase in the amount of drugs available worldwide.

But some remain more optimistic about UNGASS. Senator Richard Di Natale, leader of the Australian Greens, is one of those people. He co-hosted the Australian National Drug Summit last month which produced the Canberra Declaration, calling for illicit drug use to be classed as a health issue and not a criminal one.

"There are real harms associated with drug use, particularly for people who become dependent on it," said Di Natale, who used to be a drug and alcohol clinician. "But what we're doing isn't working, and in fact, in some areas, we're making the problem worse."

Di Natale realises that meetings like UNGASS—where people come together to share evidence—can lead to progressive change, even if it isn't accomplished immediately. As an example he points to the Portugal model, where all drugs have been decriminalised since 2001. Today most agree this program has enjoyed resounding success.

According to Di Natale, the threshold step came for Portugal when they realised "this is a health issue, we're no longer going to go after individuals who use drugs and treat them as criminals."

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