Time for the United Nations to get serious about global drug policy

by Richard Branson

The wind of change is in the air. Next month, the United Nations is convening a major summit to discuss the future of global drug policy. The stated goal of the United Nations General Assembly Special Session, or UNGASS, is to review the world’s drug control regime. It is the first such meeting in 18 years and constitutes an unprecedented opportunity to inject new thinking into the debate.

Communities around the world have been ravaged by decades of a brutal, repressive and completely ineffective war on drugs. The consequences of these strategies include soaring violence, overcrowded prisons, and pervasive corruption. Presented as an investment in a better future, the war on drugs has been an epic, costly failure. We need a new course of action.

The UNGASS meeting is a rare opportunity for government leaders to fundamentally review past approaches and propose new solutions based on evidence of what works, and what doesn’t. It sounds great on paper, but there’s just one problem. Over the past six months, deliberations over the “outcome document” for the upcoming UNGASS have been anything but transparent and evidence-based. The negotiations overseen by the Commission on Narcotics Drugs (CND) have taken place in Vienna, where at least 70 member states, including most of Africa and the Caribbean, have no permanent representation. The negotiations have also now moved mostly into closed ‘informals’ which exclude civil society observers. This is undemocratic and lacks transparency – a long way from the open, inclusive process it was lauded to be.

Many of us advocating for pragmatic reform are very worried that UNGASS is listing badly off course.  A statement issued today by a broad coalition of civil society organisations strongly condemns the process and outlines how it has unravelled. But it is not too late to salvage something in New York next month. Just a few weeks ago, Kofi Annan and I reached out to Yuri Fedotov, chief of the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC). We urged him to encourage UNGASS negotiations to be inclusive and driven by evidence, not ideology. We were gratified to receive a positive response.

Mr. Fedotov underlined the importance of moving beyond “fine words” toward more “bold and effective operational deeds” and proposed a “comprehensive and balanced” approach. We couldn’t agree more. We also agree with Mr. Fedotov that the world needs to “end the needless suffering and deaths of people due to the world drug problem.” Where we part ways is on what constitutes the “world drug problem and the best way to deal with it.” The UNODC and much of the governmental debate seem incapable of separating problems related to drug use from problems related to punitive and damaging drug policies. As overwhelming evidence has shown, the policy of prohibiting drugs and criminalizing drug users has failed to reduce drug use or stem the drug trade.

This ineffective and wasteful approach has instead exacerbated harms. If the UNODC and CND are getting the diagnosis of the problem wrong, it’s not surprising that they’re also prescribing the wrong treatment. If the UN is really serious about getting the drug problem under control, member states need to come up with the right cure. What can the UN do to get drug policy back on track?

In 2014 the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP) produced a detailed manifesto for reforming global drugs policy that was specifically designed to inform the UNGASS. It sets out key pathways to drug policies that work – putting the health and community safety first, ensuring equitable access to controlled medicines, ending the criminalization of people who use or possess drugs, promoting alternatives to incarceration for low-level participants in illicit drug markets, and encouraging diverse experiments with legally regulated markets.

There is nothing in the GCDP report that has not been echoed by member states, UN agencies and civil society during the UNGASS preparatory process – yet pitifully few of its recommendations appear in the draft Outcome Document. Even calls to end the criminalisation of people who use drugs, and end the death penalty for drug offences – that have unanimous UN agency backing – still do not feature in the draft. The UNGASS process seems to have been manipulated by the forces within the UN that have the most to lose from modernisation and reform, with all dissent stifled by a handful of powerful states.

There is still time to get the UNGASS process back on track. This will only happen if world leaders assume the responsibility to lay the foundation for a more effective and humane global drug control system. The current weak and unambitious draft of the UNGASS outcome document should not be signed off this week in Vienna but should now be discussed in New York, with the inclusion of all UN member states. Champions of reform need to stand up and be counted. Member states that have suffered the failings of the war on drugs for too long need to say enough is enough and refuse to support another bland and hollow declaration of success that re-states business as usual. Anything less would be a profound betrayal of everything the UN stands for.