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The Most Important UN Drugs Summit for Decades Was Depressing

So much ignorance, so many platitudes – so long, War on Drugs.
Max Daly
London, GB

The UN building in Vienna (Photo courtesy of Legal Matters magazine)

As the planet's governments come around to the idea of drug legalisation, I arrived at the United Nation’s office in Vienna for one of the most crucial meetings on global drug policy in decades.

At this "high level" meeting, officials will assess where we're at with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) big plan: to significantly reduce or eradicate the use and production of illegal drugs by 2019. By the end, they'll have come up with a consensus statement about what the entire world should do. Which sounds like a pretty big decision to make.


The meeting – involving 1,300 delegates from 127 member states, NGOs and agencies – is huge. And it's been given heightened importance because Uruguay and two US states have recently backtracked on what the UNODC have been discussing for the past 17 years and decided to legalise the production and use of cannabis, all while some member states continue to execute people for trafficking the stuff.

Essentially, what is agreed at this meeting will set the tone for how the world deals with drugs for years to come.

The security here is airport-strict. I ask why, and the security guy tells me that royalty is paying a visit and that sometimes people threaten to blow up the UN. But he also says that, by entering this UN complex, I'm officially leaving Austria and entering into an "extraterritorial" zone. Like an embassy or military base, it's exempt from the jurisdiction of local law. As I discover later, being in an extraterritorial zone is nowhere near as exciting as it sounds.

Some kind of weed-ruined messenger of death at the 2012 UNODC meeting (Photo by Steve Rolles)

For a meeting that's supposed to be dictating the future of global drug policy, the start is weirdly twee. The Queen of Sweden takes to the podium, looking regal. She's here because Sweden has one of the most militant anti-drug governments in Europe, with harsh penalties for addicts who don't clean themselves up. In fact, most end up crossing the ten-mile Oresund bridge to seek help in Denmark, a country that provides secure drug consumption rooms where addicts can take whatever they want safely, under supervision, without being arrested for possession.


Sweden’s government, like many others here, holds the unfaltering and somewhat optimistic belief that, one day, our planet will be free of all psychoactive drugs. It's also one of the major donors to the UNODC’s €416 million budget, alongside the US and Japan.

But never mind all that; Queen Silvia is here today because she's the patron of a really nice children’s charity. She says she's not a political person seconds before telling us that we must have a “zero tolerance” policy on drugs, because “we cannot afford to lose our children… we need to save the children”. Then she ends with that sign-off line favoured by Eurovision hosts: “Danke… merci… gracias… tack..” etc, etc, etc.

A group of 40 children from 30 countries are quickly wheeled onto the stage. Two of them, a guy from Kenya and girl from Israel, make short speeches about how punishing people who use drugs is a bad idea, which isn’t very zero tolerance at all. As I'll realise later, what these kids say will turn out to be one of the most sensible and challenging things I'll hear over the next 48 hours.

Raymond Yans, head of the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board, steps up. In the run up to this meeting, he has branded Uruguay’s government “pirates” for legalising the production and use of cannabis in their own country. On stage, he kicks off a trend that proves to be popular throughout the next couple of days: the endless churning out of completely meaningless and questionable statistics.


Russian slide showing how money from growing opium in Afghanistan is laundered around the globe. Photo by Jackson Wood. (Click to enlarge)

According to Yans, prohibition has resulted in 100 million fewer opium addicts than there would have been had drugs not been outlawed. A telling statistic if it were based on any kind of truth. He also says, bizarrely, that prohibition is the only reason illicit drug use is lower than alcohol or tobacco use. So he's saying that, if drugs were legalised, Earth's entire population would quit their jobs, forget about their families and turn the world into one giant Zurich "needle park". Which is kind of like saying that, now that same-sex marriage is legal in the UK, all straight people are going to wake up gay – i.e. completely nonsensical.

Next up, to get the meeting started in earnest, is Yuri Fedotov, one of Russia’s highest level diplomats and Executive Director of the UNODC. Espionage aficionados may remember him from his previous job as Russia’s ambassador in London. Because, during his post, former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned to death with radioactive polonium-210. He begins by saying that while there has been success in reducing cocaine production, there have been setbacks with the online drug trade, legal highs, increased opium cultivation and trafficking in West Africa.

Fedotov is an odd choice as the world’s drug czar. His country is widely accepted as having one of the most barbaric anti-drug regimes in the world, with rocketing levels of HIV infection, a ban on methadone and regular abuse of heroin addicts in the national media, as well as a treatment programme that has sometimes led to people being beaten, raped and tortured in custody, then left to rot in correctional drug gulags.


Regardless, Fedotov tells UN member states that it’s best if they can avoid jailing drug addicts, and instead respect their human rights and provide them with the best treatment available. This kind of doublethink is another popular trend here, with many of the world’s most extreme "tough on drugs" proponents also gabbing on about the huge importance of human rights, individual freedom and their citizens’ right to health.

Fedotov’s accession, as a Russian, to head of the UNODC in 2010 (he replaced Italian Antonio Maria Costa, a rumoured member of Opus Dei who famously revealed that drug money had kept the world afloat during the global financial meltdown) turned out to be a prescient move. There is a growing feeling here that the baton of Global Drug Policeman has been passed on from the United States – the driving force behind the UNODC for the last 50 years – to Russia.

UNODC executive director Yuri Fedotov and Queen Silvia of Sweden. (Photo courtesy of István Gábor Takács, HCLU – Drugreporter)

Thanks to the success of stoners in Washington and Colorado, America has mostly lost the international anti-drugs cred that Ronald Reagan worked so hard to establish. Eager to stick the boot in, Fedotov chastises the international community, particularly the US and UK, for failing to stem the rise of opium cultivation in Afghanistan – and for failing to stem the rise of drug use in general. It's “a fiasco” that needs sorting, he says.


Echoing the way the century-old drug war has been fought, many speakers just go through the motions, playing drug seizure bingo – relaying meaningless stats about how many tons of drugs they’ve confiscated with how many boats and planes. How drugs is a scourge, a menace, a plague. How we must tackle this head on, otherwise our children will become a generation of drug zombies.

Generally, poor countries where drugs are produced and trafficked blame the richer consumer countries for failing to stem the demand for drugs, while the rich nations patronise them with offers of aid to help stem corruption and to get peasants to grow legal crops instead of drug crops.

After sneaking through the back door of a "round table discussion" that the security officer is convinced I’m banned from attending, I enter a room where Kazakhstan announces it’s launching a programme to weed out the drug fiends by randomly drug testing all its school children. Which is obviously absurd. I also find out that Israel is working with internet providers to monitor and shut down online legal high sites, while Pakistan and Ghana demand a worldwide ban on the production of the universal cold remedy ephedrine because it’s used to make meth. India tells Pakistan that this is dumb.

The majority of these meetings are just speakers from different countries and various organisations droning on about how drugs are bad. So I’ll cut to the interesting stuff, and the only thing stopping these hundreds of delegates from abandoning the extraterritorial zone and heading into Vienna to eat sausages and look at statues of historical military generals.


A legalisation activist tries to remind UN delegates that, in 18th century Austria, coffee was banned, and soldiers used to smell citizens to see if they had been drinking it. (Photo courtesy of István Gábor Takács, HCLU – Drugreporter)

In one corner, leading the pantomime villains of global drug policy, is Russia. Russia’s main allies are Iran (whose speaker was surrounded by four bodyguards at all times, for fear of being attacked by drug-crazed liberals), Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Thailand, China and Singapore – all of whom are hardcore prohibitionists and fans of such policies as tying addicts to bed posts, refusing them medical treatment, locking them up or, in some cases, just straight-up executing them. Their spiel is that, despite the death penalty for drug offences being against international law, it’s no one else’s business what they do to their drug users. Which doesn't sound like a very UN-ey thing to say.

In the other corner sit the pro-reform countries: Ecuador, Uruguay, Mexico, Portugal, Germany, Czech Republic and Switzerland. They use this meeting as a chance to express their disapproval of the UN’s reluctance to condemn the worst excesses of the drug war. With a growing tide of liberal drug laws being adopted, these countries plead with the UN to acknowledge the fact that there are alternatives to the old school War on Drugs, which was set in stone over half a century ago at the UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961.


Diego Canepa, vice president of Uruguay – which legalised the production of cannabis at the start of 2014 – told the meeting: “Our country has the right to implement a public policy that does not harm others, and that promotes health and seeks to improve the quality of life. We need changes, innovations. And it is what we are doing.”

I end up bumping into Canepa and hanging out with him one evening. For anyone interested in global political personalities, he seems like a good guy.

Delegates in the main hall for the UN's drug meeting

Despite the widening chasm between these two sides, the endgame of this meeting is to try to reach a consensus and publish a "joint ministerial statement". In preparation for this, negotiators have been desperately scrabbling to find common ground.

When Mexico, the country with arguably the most to lose from the status quo (80,000 of its citizens have died as a result of the drug war since 2006), asked for the statement to include a line acknowledging the simple fact that there is a debate to be had on global drug policy, they were blackballed by the hardliners.

So at the end of the meeting in Vienna, the jargon-filled, 45-point statement was nothing like a consensus, as the UN had claimed, but a list of vague pointlessnesses about how drugs are bad, traffickers should get caught and addicts should be helped so they don’t spread disease. There's no mention of the huge changes in approach adopted in South America, the USA, New Zealand – or in European countries like Portugal and Czech Republic – and no condemnation of the death penalty for drug offences.

Business as usual, even after all that talking.

“It’s just a bland restatement of previous commitments, meaningless platitudes and delusional self-congratulation,” says Steve Rolles, Senior Policy Analyst at the UK-based Transform Drug Policy Foundation. “What we are looking at is the rather desperate last gasps of the War on Drugs as a global framework."

The UN has enabled the world to agree to disagree, packaged it as perfect harmony and nodded its approval for countries to get away with murder and treat people like dogs because they're unfortunate enough to become addicted to drugs.

In the real world, the global War on Drugs as a joint enterprise is unravelling fast. However, within the walls of the United Nations, everything is just fine.