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UNGASS 2016: Time for a New Paradigm in Drugs

Author: Jorge Chabat, Associate, Mexican Council on Foreign Relations
Apr 12, 2016

African Union Expert Brief A man holds a sign during a demonstration in support of the legalization of marijuana outside the Supreme Court building in Mexico City, Mexico, November 4, 2015. (Edgard Garrido/Reuters)


The United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS) will take place April 19–21, 2016, at the United Nations headquarters in New York. UNGASS 2016 is being convened by Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala—three countries that have suffered the costs of the “war on drugs” and have expressed their discontent with the prohibitionist approach to drug control. The previous UN special session on illicit drugs in 1998 was characterized by a strong prohibitionist approach, which considered illicit drugs as the origin of numerous social and economic problems.

According to the 1998 session’s outcome document, “drugs destroy lives and communities, undermine sustainable human development, and generate crime.” Controlled substances were viewed as a “grave threat to the health and well‐being of all mankind, the independence of states, democracy, the stability of nations, the structure of all societies, and the dignity and hope of millions of people and their families.” In some states, this perception gave rise to policy responses focused on eradicating illegal drugs altogether, to emulate the long-standing war on drugs in the United States. In other states, drug policies were loosened, leading to the decriminalization and legalization of previously prohibited substances.

UNGASS 2016 will bring the international community together for a much-needed review of the progress made, or lack thereof, on the goals of past special sessions. Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala called for the meeting to revise current approaches to the world drug problem in an effort to increase the effectiveness of the global community’s policy responses to address the challenges of drugs and their consequences. Despite a lack of consensus about the efficacy of drug prohibition as a policy response, an official UN endorsement of some of the major changes in global views on drug policy does not appear to be forthcoming at UNGASS 2016.

A major shift would be that this year’s special session recommends the removal of marijuana from the list of banned substances and leaves each member state to decide the best way to regulate the production, traffic, and consumption of the drug. However, it is also possible that the current regime will be maintained in the case of marijuana, but that the emphasis on prohibition will be replaced by one on regulation, which was the original purpose of the regime. That means that there will be some controls for the production, transportation, and sale of marijuana that do not imply total prohibition, but only limit the way it can be commercialized. This alternative will be more acceptable for the proponents of prohibition and present less opposition from the bureaucracy that prohibition has created. In this scenario, marijuana for medical purposes will be accepted and its recreational use will be strictly regulated.

Prohibition’s Failure and Alternative Approaches

The war on drugs has not been successful in any part of the world, and its cost, both human and financial, has been severe, with some countries—including Colombia and Mexico—bearing disproportionately high costs. Additionally, the process of capital and power accumulation by drug trafficking gangs has given rise to a diversification of criminal activities and the expansion of criminal networks in many regions that have not been directly affected, such as the Southern Cone in South America and West Africa. Recognizing the high costs of prohibition, numerous countries have changed their approach toward managing the drug problem. A number of world leaders, including former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, have also expressed their discontent with the prohibition approach established in UN conventions.

Several countries, particularly in Europe, have implemented policies aimed at reducing the negative consequences of drug use and recognized that the objective of a drug-free society is unrealistic. A number of programs in Switzerland and Denmark even provide drugs to addicts, or at least a "safe haven” in which to use illegal drugs. For example, Denmark’s 2009 program gave hundreds of long-term, adult drug addicts the right to receive two free doses of heroin a day with the aim of improving the addict’s state of health and reducing their propensity for criminal activity. In some countries, such as Switzerland, harm-reduction policies have significantly lowered the number of new addicts as well as drug‐related deaths, HIV infections, and property crimes committed by drug users. Critics of prohibition, including the former presidents of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, have advocated for adopting the harm-reduction model and shifting away from prohibition within multilateral organizations such as the Organization of American States (OAS). In 2015, the OAS published a report advocating for the “decriminalization of drug consumption” as the basis for any public health strategy.

A number of countries have moved further away from the prohibition model and legalized the use of previously controlled drugs, notably marijuana. For instance, Uruguay legalized marijuana for recreational purposes in 2014, while Colombia and Jamaica have both taken steps to decriminalize some aspects of possession, cultivation, or use of medical marijuana. Moreover, approaches within the United States have diversified: Over the past two years, four U.S. states—Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington—have also legalized recreational marijuana. There are also other countries, such as Mexico, where the possession of drugs for personal consumption is not considered a felony. These shifts away from prohibition have been possible because the UN conventions establish that the penalties for personal consumption must be consistent with the constitutional principles and the basic concepts of the legal system of every member state. Additionally, it remains unclear how the international community can sanction a country that does not comply with the international conventions. In theory, the provision of controlled substances for medical purposes can be suspended, but due to the humanitarian cost, it is difficult to imagine such scenarios.

The U.S. Position and the Prohibition Status Quo

Similar to several other states, the United States is increasingly disposed toward accepting changes in the regulation of marijuana, given the steps it has taken domestically toward decriminalization and legalization. However, it remains unclear how these changes will come about in practice. It is no secret that the prohibitionist twist of the international drug control regime has been encouraged by U.S. policies. In many ways, prohibition has persisted internationally as a product of U.S. pressure on other countries. For instance, in 2004 Mexico tried to establish the maximum amount of marijuana that people can carry for personal consumption, since consumption is not a felony in that country. However, President Vicente Fox vetoed the proposal due to U.S. pressure. These legal limits were finally established in 2008, but the quantities were as low as five grams of marijuana. 

However, it seems that the fracture in the international prohibitionist consensus has reached the United States itself, as the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes in four U.S. states and for medical purposes in many others demonstrates. Surprisingly, the White House has allowed this divergence between federal and state drug policies. This approach could change if a Republican wins the presidency in the 2016 elections.

Official U.S. statements, meanwhile, suggest that the United States could live in a world with a hybrid system of drug control, where some countries would maintain the prohibition status quo and others could adopt policies of harm reduction or legalization. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield said in October 2014 that the international situation has changed since the 1961 UN Drug Control Convention, and that the United States should “have enough flexibility to allow us to incorporate those changes” and “tolerate different national drug policies.” According to Brownfield, the United States should accept that some countries will have “very strict drug approaches” and others “will legalize entire categories of drugs.” The United States is not the only country that has maintained a so-called hardline stance on drugs. There are other countries, including Russia and China, that are still advocating for the strong prohibitionist approach. A major uncertainty at UNGASS 2016 will be whether the positions of these hardliners will prevail, extending the prohibitionist status quo.

Unsurprisingly, Latin American states will form a highly motivated bloc at UNGASS 2016. The room for maneuver that Latin American countries have on international drug policy remains limited, however. As noted above, it took more than four years for Mexico to establish a maximum amount of marijuana that people can carry for personal consumption, at least partially due to U.S. pressure. Similarly, Guatemala’s former President Otto Perez Molina has advocated for the legalization of marijuana, but following his arrest for corruption, his successor abandoned that agenda. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has openly criticized the prohibition of drugs—marijuana has been legalized for medical purposes in Colombia—but he will not lead an international movement in that direction. Similarly, Mexico’s position at UNGASS 2016 will be characterized by ambiguity. Nonetheless, if a major change to the prohibitionist consensus appears realistic at UNGASS 2016, Mexico will support it, provided that doing so would not generate conflict with the United States.

Conclusions and Recommendations

As states prepare to gather for the UN special session, it is evident that the consensus on drug prohibition is fractured. Many countries are not content with the outcomes of the war on drugs over the past decades. Given this, a change seems imminent. If there is no change to the consensus laid out in previous UN conventions, countries may decide to abandon the international drug control regime altogether. In other words, the risk that the international regime becomes a purely declaratory one after UNGASS 2016 is a reality. That outcome is not beneficial for international cooperation.

To avoid this outcome, the best option at the UN meeting would be for states to promote a change in the character of the regime, encouraging a shift from a prohibitionist approach to a regulatory one. That approach will reduce the fears of some conservative sectors that if prohibition is lifted, everyone, including minors, will become addicts. States will have to reckon with the difficult reality that drugs exist and they are not going to disappear. The question for governments should not thus be prohibition, but regulation and managing negative societal effects. Total prohibition, which has produced more costs than benefits, has proven ineffective, but complete liberalization and legalization isn’t the answer either. At UNGASS 2016, states will have to develop a new paradigm for dealing with drugs, and this paradigm should enshrine regulation over prohibition. Moreover, UNGASS 2016 will decide if this process is managed by international institutions or is left to the discretion of each state. If we want to build a better international regulatory regime for drugs, the United Nations should have a role in that process.

Global Memos are briefs by the Council of Councils that gather opinions from global experts on major international developments.