The hardline approach to drugs must end by Richard Branson

The declaration of the UN general assembly special session (UNgass) on drugs agreed this week is long on rhetoric and short on substance. Many key issues are missing. It does not call for an end to criminalization and incarceration and capital punishment for drug-related offenses. It fails to request the World Health Organization to review drug scheduling. It does not explain how to ensure treatment for users and says nothing about regulation.

The UNgass declaration is out of step with mounting evidence and with public sentiment. Rather than offer practical solutions based on science, it doubles down on the status quo. It comprehensively fails to acknowledge harm reduction and regulatory innovations – many of them successful – taking place around the world. It does not go nearly far enough.

Part of the reason UNgass failed to deliver is because the process was fatally flawed from the beginning. Let me explain.

In the lead-up to UNgass in 2015, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (or CND) held preparatory meetings with its 53 members. Many states who sit on the CND – China, Iran and Russia – favor repressive approaches to drug policy. The first mistake is that the CND should not have been allowed to “lead the process”.

The members of the CND were supposed to draft a declaration that would represent the interests and realities of all 193 member states. But the drafting process was obscure and tightly controlled by a self-appointed UNgass board. Inputs from non-members of the CND were by and large rejected. Substantive concerns were ignored. When the draft UNgass declaration was completed on 23 March 2016, it was far from representative. The second mistake is that the process should have been much more inclusive and representative.

The negotiations in the lead-up to UNgass throughout 2015 and the first three months of 2016 were neither transparent nor inclusive. The inputs of key UN agencies working on health, gender, human rights and development (along with two thirds of all UN member states) were excluded. A third mistake is that the UN Office on Drugs and Crime was put in charge and perpetuated a hardline criminal justice approach.

During the preparations for UNgass, nearly 200 civil society organizations from around the world were literally shut out of decisive meetings. Their views and inputs were sidelined. What is more, on the day that UNgass opened on 19 April, many NGOs were denied entry to the UN (on the grounds of security risks). Even materials they were carrying were confiscated by UN security. The fourth mistake is that the UNgass itself excluded the voice of civil society – it was unable to accommodate the desire for change.

The UNgass declaration does not acknowledge the existence of many new and urgent drug-related threats facing the world. It reaffirms the 2009 Political Declaration claiming “tangible progress” but there are no clear indicators measuring this progress. Illicit drug markets continue flourishing. Money laundering is rife, as the Panama Papers amply show. None of these issues are addressed in the UNgass declaration.

The problem is that UNgass is out of step with realities on the ground. As more and more national, state and municipal governments pursue progressive approaches – including regulation – the more they will show the inherent flaws of the international drug control regime. The risk is that the UN – and in particular the CND – fails to adapt to changing priorities, realities and evidence and that the multilateral approach to controlling drugs collapses altogether. It may already be too late to save the broken and fragmented drug regime.

The bad news is that the UNgass declaration perpetuates a damaging status quo. The good news is that UNgass is just one milestone on the road to transforming drug policy. It is not the only one. In fact governments, national and city governments are already adopting progressive legislation. We at the Global Commission on Drug Policy will redouble our efforts to support societies around the world to positively recalibrate drug policy.

We have another opportunity to right the wrongs of global drug policy in 2019. Between now and then all UN member states will need to start bridging the gap between the international drug control conventions and the many changes occurring on the ground. The tension between the two is reaching a breaking point.

In the meantime, we call on the UN secretary general to take some steps to move the agenda forward. For example, an urgent priority for the UN is to align drug policy with the new Sustainable Development Goals, as well as human rights and treaty tensions in the lead up to 2019.

The Global Commission urges governments and civil societies to continue exploring progressive approaches to drug policy and to adopt reforms that are tailored to local needs and rights. Building on the modest steps taken at UNgass, the commission encourages and supports societies around the world in their practical efforts to fundamentally realign drug policy so that people’s health, citizen safety and human rights are front and center.