The drug warriors who derailed the UN drug policy summit have made a terrible miscalculation

For the people who have invested so much hope in this week’s UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs, the official agreement it produced – the “outcome document” – represents a shocking betrayal. The UNGASS was called by three Latin American member states – Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala – who have arguably paid the highest price for the failure of the global war on drugs. They carried the concerns of millions of people, civil society organisations and other members states around the world when they called on the UN to
critically evaluate the prohibitionist drug policies that have been in force for more than half a century now – and explore alternatives including decriminalisation and legal regulation of drug markets. For them, enough was enough.

Transform staff were heavily involved in the advocacy efforts around UNGASS

But the outcome process has been systematically hijacked and derailed by the forces of conservatism. Led by the belligerent Russian delegation, a small but powerful group of member states defending the status quo, ensured any proposed language that challenged the failings of the current system, or called for meaningful reform, was systematically ignored, marginalised, vetoed, watered down or overlooked in the negotiations.

But if the drug warriors who made this happen view this as a victory, they have made a terrible miscalculation. They may still outgun the reform grouping in high-level forums – but they have underestimated the power of the sentiment that drove calls for an UNGASS on drugs in the first place. Their machinations have effectively condemned the world to years more misery and failure. History will look no more kindly on them than climate change deniers today, or defenders of apartheid in the 1980s.

A striking element of the General Assembly meeting has been the series of member states taking the floor to berate the failings of the outcome document – not so much what it says, but what it doesn’t say: its weakness on human rights, harm reduction, and regulation. 

The “world drug problem” is not “solved” by restating previous commitments to a failed punitive paradigm – even if it comes with the official imprimateur of the General Assembly. One of the most telling stories of this UNGASS has been how the polarisation between forces of reform and the status quo among member states has been matched by internal struggles within the UN itself. A hugely important and positive outcome has been the involvement of the wider UN family. For the understandably furious and frustrated reform states, in Latin America and beyond, the problems will not go away with an official reiteration of previous turgid platitudes. Reform is already happening, and at an accelerating rate – be it the continuing trend towards ending the criminalisation of people who use drugs, or the regulation of coca, cannabis, other currently illegal drugs, or new psychoactive substances.

And neither are the civil society groups and campaigners simply going to give up. If anything their resolve and networks has been dramatically strengthened. The UNGASS has acted as a rallying point around which multiple voices and issue groups have unified, found a common voice and reached out to new audiences. 

I’m reminded of the fable of the oak and the reed. As the storm approaches, the inflexible oak tree refuses to yield, while the reed bends with the wind. The stubborn old oak is eventually felled – while the reed survives to grow and prosper.  

If the UN drug control system cannot evolve to meet the needs of the growing number of member states demanding change, it will either collapse, or drift further into irrelevance – particularly as more and more jurisdictions choose to step away from of its outdated and broken prohibitionist ethos. To function effectively, the rule of law in fact requires that laws can be adapted and can evolve in light of changing circumstances, especially when they have proven ineffective.

If you want the real story of this UNGASS, don’t look at what’s in the outcome document, look at what’s not in it – the submissions from UN human rights agencies, UNAIDS, and the UN Development Programme, the UNGASS plenary statements from Colombia, Uruguay, Jamaica, Canada, the Czech republic and others – and listen to the voices of civil society, the drug war’s victims and their families. That’s where the future lies.

This UNGASS has not been a victory for the drug warriors. The UN drug control system was faced with a choice: evolve or die. They have chosen the latter. It now falls to reform-minded states and civil society to build something better from the ashes of this UNGASS.