UNGASS 2016 commentary series: a historic opportunity for international drug policy reform?

In 2014, Harm Reduction Journal published an article that examined the legal compatibility of Mexico’s 'ley de nacromenudeo' drug policy reform in the context of broader changes occurring within international drug policy. With a United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the world drug problem set to take place in just a few days, co-author Timothy Mackey and Meredith Meacham explain why now is a crucial time to fundamentally rethink the future of global governance for drug policy.

In 1990, the United Nations held its first UNGASS meeting on drug abuse which aimed at strengthening the UN drug control regime in order to “protect mankind from the scourge of drug abuse and illicit trafficking.” What followed was a highly controversial decade long war on drugs.

In 1998, a second UNGASS meeting was even more ambitious. Under the theme, ‘A drug-free world – we can do it!’, a focus on ‘zero tolerance’ and an emphasis on enforcement-based policies was pursued, with the goal of prohibiting all use, possession, production and trafficking of illicit drugs.

Yet, more than two decades later, the pathway set forth by previous UNGASS meetings appears to be reversing. In fact, much has changed in the current international drug policy debate climate, largely due to the harsh reality that the war on drugs has failed, and wrought devastating impacts on individuals and communities worldwide.

Failed policies of prohibition and criminalization have resulted in serious societal, human health, and human rights harms.

Specifically, failed policies of prohibition and criminalization have resulted in serious societal, human health, and human rights harms. Chief among them has been the mass incarceration of non-violent drug users, the spread of infectious diseases linked to injection drug use (such as HIV and Hepatitis C), lack of evidence based substance abuse treatment, and escalating violence from drug traffickers, as recently highlighted in a Lancet Commissions piece.

This has led to widespread calls for change, with much of the impetus for reform driven by Latin American countries (such as Mexico, Colombia, Uruguay, and Guatemala) who have disproportionately suffered the brunt of societal harm and drug-related violence.

This buildup is now culminating in the third UNGASS on drugs set to commence from April 19-21, setting the stage for what could be a seminal moment in international drug policy reform.

Evolution of the international drug policy regime

At the heart of the international drug policy debate, is the future role of three widely adopted UN drug control treaty instruments (the 1972 Protocol amending the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (Single Convention of 1961), the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances (CPS), and the 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic and Psychotropic Substances).

Collectively, these treaties are at the heart of the international drug control regime, and along with UN organs including the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, Commission on Narcotic Drugs, and the International Narcotics Control Board, represent an integrated and established international approach aimed at limiting use of narcotic and psychotropic drugs exclusively for medical purposes, while also criminalizing their unauthorized production and trade.

The authority of the UN drug control apparatus has been continuously challenged in the face of mounting scientific evidence that the policies of this regime in fact negatively contribute to discrimination.

However, the authority of the UN drug control apparatus has been continuously challenged in the face of mounting scientific evidence that the policies of this regime in fact negatively contribute to discrimination, violence, and undermine individual and population health.

Leading the charge is national drug policy reform experimentation in over 30 countries, tackling a host of issues including the promotion of harm reduction practices, decriminalizing personal possession/use, and also broader legalization of scheduled drugs.

This includes countries such as Portugal and the Czech Republic, which have decriminalized minor drug offenses. It also includes the rapid advancement of local and domestic policies aimed at legalizing marijuana/cannabis, a scheduled controlled substance whose prohibition is imbedded into the very fabric of the Single Convention.

Importantly, policy reform efforts are diverse in nature and scope, demanding research and evaluation on their impact. This includes an innovative 2009 law enacted in Mexico known as the Small-Scale Drug Law (‘ley de narcomenudeo’).

What can ‘ley de narcomenudeo’ teach us?

The ley de narcomenudeo drug policy reform measure is a unique case study that can potentially provide a template for compatible drug policy reform that fits within the current UN drug control regime and can inform future reform efforts.

The reform eliminates criminal penalties for small-specified amounts of certain illicit drugs (heroin, cocaine, LSD, methamphetamine, and marijuana) and shifted prosecution of local retail sale from the federal to state level.

The reform eliminates criminal penalties for small-specified amounts of certain illicit drugs (heroin, cocaine, LSD, methamphetamine, and marijuana) and shifted prosecution of local retail sale from the federal to state level.

It also requires that if an individual is apprehended for possession of sub-threshold amounts a third time, that they are then required to enter into mandatory drug treatment.

Unique to this reform approach is that it only partially deregulates a select group of drugs (in lieu of a total decriminalization or legalization approach). It also does not criminalize individual possession, instead opting for treatment for repeat offenders.

In this sense, ley de narcomenudeo may in fact fall under the acceptable range of legal flexibilities already permitted under UN drug treaties (specifically Article 36 of the amended Single Convention and Article 22 of the CPS, and related treaty commentaries).

However, in order to appropriately implement and measure the potential impact of Mexico’s policy reform, as well as the host of other attempts at drug policy experimentation, a number of key developments remain necessary.

The future of international drug policy?

Despite direct challenges to the international drug control regime, legal flexibilities contained within the UN treaties remain wholly ambiguous, and inhibit the full realization of drug policy reform measures aimed at both combating the criminal trade in illicit drugs, while also ensuring the human right to health.

Lack of UN leadership needed to modernize international drug policy is also playing a crucial role in public health emergencies. This includes the recent illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia, a country that continues to prohibit opioid substitution therapy (OST), even though OST is widely supported globally, severely undermining progress in the region’s fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Equally troubling, in the United States, a recent outbreak of HIV in rural areas of the state of Indiana has been linked to the lack of needle and syringe exchange programs and to the growing national epidemic of prescription opioid abuse and overdose.

The historic opportunity presented by UNGASS 2016 to significantly alter the future course of international drug policy cannot be understated.

In response, the historic opportunity presented by UNGASS 2016 to significantly alter the future course of international drug policy cannot be understated. At a minimum, commitment to conduct robust evaluations of drug policy reform measures has to be prioritized in order to support further implementation and evidence-based policy making.

On a more macro level, reform measures need to be supported by a clear policy pronouncement by UN member states that decriminalization of minor, non-violent drug offenses are permitted within the legal flexibilities of all UN treaties, bodies, and policies.

This also needs to be accompanied by a strong commitment (including financial support) to implement drug policy reforms and to scale-up harm-reduction services, while also integrating these measures as a critical component of future drug policy responses, as supported by the Vienna Declaration, Sustainable Development Goal Target 3.5, and a host of civil society actors.

Signs of change are evident, but now is the time for the international community to coalesce around a new direction for future UN governance of international drug policy that truly advances laws, policies, and international cooperation, which will finally ensure drug policies help instead of harm the “health and wellbeing of humankind.”


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