This week’s UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs, which is currently taking place in New York, is the biggest international drug policy summit for a generation. Unfortunately, even before it began, it was all but certain that the meeting would produce no substantive changes to how the world addresses the drugs issue. Not least because the agreement (the “outcome document”) that the international community ratified at UNGASS was effectively signed off more than a month ago, as part of an opaque process that excluded more than 100 UN member states and sidelined civil society groups. As a result, this agreement – which was supposed to be the whole point of the UNGASS – was ratified at the beginning of this week’s meeting, rather than at the end. The UN effectively put the cart before the horse.
But despite this, the UNGASS has moved us a step closer to the end of the war on drugs. Firstly, it drew out strikingly strong pro-reform statements from every relevant UN body, many of which were speaking out on this issue for the first time. In particular, these statements emphasised the need to decriminalise drug possession on public health and human rights grounds. And the UNGASS has also highlighted just how divided the international community is on the future direction of drug policy. There is – as was clear for all to see – a gaping chasm between various member states’ views on how best to deal with drugs. On one side were countries like Indonesia, whose delegate was met with a chorus of boos when he defended his country’s use of the death penalty for drug offences, and on the other, countries like New Zealand, whose delegate stated that responsible legal regulation of drug markets was “the key to reducing drug-related harm”.
Even between developed countries of similar standing on the global stage, there was a huge contrast in how they perceived the drugs issue and intended to address it. The statements made by the UK and Canada, for example, were like night and day. The UK declared it had a “modern, balanced, evidence-based response to drugs,” which includes a “ban on the production, supply, import and export of all new psychoactive substances”. Banning drugs is hardly modern, let alone evidence-based: current prohibitionist drug laws were drawn up more than half a century ago and have exacerbated the very problems they sought to address (as well as creating entirely new problems in the process). This is no more evident than in the case of new psychoactive substances (NPS) in particular. The emergence of these substances is a direct a result of prohibition and the war on drugs: people only use synthetic cannabis products like Spice, for example, because real cannabis is illegal. So the UK is effectively trying to solve a problem caused by banning drugs by banning yet more drugs.
Compare that to Canada, which has realised just how futile and counterproductive such knee-jerk bans are and is now taking steps to legally regulate its domestic cannabis market. As Canada’s minister of health stated at the UNGASS, this legislation will help “ensur[e] we keep marijuana out of the hands of children and profits out of the hands of criminals.” She also went on to praise Insite, a supervised drug consumption facility in Vancouver where people can use their street-bought drugs in a medical setting, under the watchful eye of trained staff who provide vital health advice and social support. Evaluations of the service consistently show that it save lives. This Lancet study, for instance, found that the number of fatal overdoses in the area around Insite decreased by 35% after the facility opened.
The UK could learn a lot from Canada’s approach to tackling overdose deaths. In 2014, deaths from illegal drug use reached a record high, an increase that was driven mostly by a surge in heroin overdoses – precisely the type of deaths that facilities like Insite are effective in reducing. The UK’s statement at UNGASS obviously neglected to mention this fact, preferring instead to trumpet a decline in overall levels of drug use – a decline which government policy has had nothing to do with, and has in any case either stalled or begun to be reversed for some substances, as use has shot up among young people in the past couple of years.
While the UK shied away from its failure to keep people who use drugs alive – which is surely the most vital aim of any country’s drug policy – Canada addressed it head on, acknowledging the story of Donna May, whose daughter lost her life due to complications from drug use and who is now campaigning for drug laws that support, rather stigmatise, those most in need of help. (She is at the UNGASS as part of our International Families for Safer Drug Policy project, organised by Anyone’s Child and Moms United to End the War on Drugs.)
Donna May protested outside the UN building, along with other families affected by the drug war
The UK could’ve done the same: it could’ve recognised the ever-growing number of mums, dads, siblings and friends who are demanding change after losing loved ones due to our failed approach to drugs. But instead it chose empty platitudes about the need to “redouble our efforts” and “retai[n] a criminal offence for drug possession”. When faced with the delusional – or downright cynical – inertia of the UK, I think reformers on this side of the Atlantic will feel more Canadian than British this week.