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(Geneva, 12 March 2019)
Government authorities gathering this week in Vienna at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) have the opportunity of correcting the course of international drug policy and ending decades of harm resulting from its failures. Unfortunately, this opportunity will not be seized.
The CND ministerial segment marks the target date of the 2009 political declaration to address the so-called “world drug problem”. The international community agreed then to “eliminate or reduce significantly” the production, trafficking in and consumption of illegal drugs over the next decade.
Clearly, these objectives have not been achieved at any level. Over USD 100 billion is spent annually on law-enforcement activity attempting to fight an illegal market with a turnover estimated at USD 500 billion. Coca and opium production reached record levels in 2017 and only a part of that was seized. And in the last decade a large number of potent synthetic drugs were designed.
Worse still, the emphasis on prohibition with the aim of creating a “drug-free world” has resulted in devastation for millions of people who use drugs, cultivators, women used as couriers, families, ethnic minorities, and vulnerable communities. Human rights violations, violence, disproportionate sentencing, prison overcrowding, public health crises, and endangered state institutions continue to break lives all over the world.
The supposed cure is worse than the initial problem. As the late Global Commissioner Kofi Annan said: “Drugs have destroyed many lives, but wrong government policies have destroyed many more.” However, countries are going to renew their commitments to outdated repressive approaches. As former President of Colombia and Global Commissioner Juan Manuel Santos said, “One keeps pedaling, pedaling and pedaling, and making great efforts, only to find out that one hasn’t really moved.”
Now, notwithstanding these facts – and without conducting any formal review of the impact of the policies in the past decade – ministers appear poised to adopt a new declaration that, once again, consecrates prohibition as the only approach to drug control.
Not only does this insistence on preserving the status quo guarantee that the world will continue to suffer the harms of drugs and of failed policies, it also threatens the relevance of the international drug control system itself.
Indeed, support of prohibition, enforced through repression, has eroded. The international consensus is broken and the international drug control framework is no longer universally observed because it no longer reflects reality.
Countries are therefore developing highly diverse responses to managing the risks posed by drugs. Some continue to believe in the possibility of a ‘drug-free society’ and see abstinence as the only option, while others are taking a more pragmatic approach, implementing harm reduction measures and offering innovative treatment options; some continue to impose harsh penalties for drug offenses, including extrajudicial killings, while others are decriminalizing use and possession and offer alternatives to punishment for low-level actors, or even experimenting with legal regulation.
Many of the decisions taken at the CND ministerial segment are long-lasting and can have negative effects on other global development objectives. This is the reason why the members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy have written directly to the Heads of States represented at the CND. The stakes are too high simply to forge ahead with yet another prohibitionist declaration that will further divide the international community.
We, the members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, sincerely hope that those making these decisions will not find themselves on the wrong side of history. We urge them to acknowledge the shift in paradigm that has already taken place, examine the evidence, and choose to strengthen a much-needed international system by embracing those policies that have proven to work. Finally, we urge them to allow countries to experiment with policies that address their particular concerns, with a full respect for fundamental rights, and offer some hope of effectively managing the presence of drugs in society.
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