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The international drug control system is broken. Since this system was established in 1961 with the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, it has consistently sought to enforce a policy of prohibition, with the aim of eradicating drugs from society.
Not only is the failure of this approach to drug control self-evident, the efforts to achieve a “drug-free society” have exacted a heavy price on societies worldwide, in the form of human rights violations, overcrowded prisons, an increase in violence and drug-related overdose deaths, and a lack of access to health services and essential medicines for those who need them. Prohibition has further contributed to stigma and discrimination against people who use drugs, enriched and empowered organized crime, and undermined the rule of law.
Recognizing this failure and the harms resulting from enforcing prohibition through repression, many countries and regions have decided to change their policies, with the support of their populations. Indeed, since the Global Commission on Drug Policy published its first report in 2011, there has been a significant shift in terms of perceptions, public discourse, scientific evidence and policy implementation.
Uruguay, Canada, and 11 US States have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and Luxembourg will soon follow. More than 20 nations and 33 US States (and the District of Columbia) have legalized the medical use of cannabis, and Bolivia now legally regulates the production of coca. A number of countries are adopting a less punitive, more health-centered approach to drug policy, offering treatment options (such as opioid substitution therapy) and harm reduction services (needle and syringe exchange programs, drug testing services, supervised drug consumption rooms). At least 26 countries have implemented some form of decriminalization policy, providing alternatives to punishment for low-level drug offenses.
At the multilateral level, however, there is still a consensus on maintaining prohibition among global powers such as China, Russia, Brazil, France, the UK, and the US at the federal level. Furthermore, despite promising shifts in places like Thailand and Malaysia, many countries across Southeast Asia, as well as the Middle East, Africa and Central and Eastern Europe, continue to apply harsh penalties for drug-related offenses. Some 35 countries still allow the death penalty in certain cases, while the Philippines has been conducting a brutal anti-drug campaign since 2016, now emulated by other countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Cambodia.
This widening gap between countries that base their policies on evidence and those that are ideologically driven or politically motivated, between a multilateral agenda concerned with preserving the status quo and national initiatives aiming at ending the costly “war on drugs”, weakens international law and risks rendering the UN system irrelevant on the topic of drug control.
Yet we need a functioning and cohesive international system. As is now the case for the environment, drug policy at the multilateral level requires a “Delivering as One” UN approach, incorporating issues related to development, public health, human rights, social justice and poverty eradication, order to effectively address the primary stated concern of the 1961 treaty for “the health and welfare of mankind”.