Reading between the lines at the 56th Commission on Narcotic Drugs

I fully expected the 51st Commission on Narcotic Drugs to be as depressing as others that I have attended in recent years. With so many organizations in the world working to change drug policies and refocus attention on the harms that arise from global drug polices on individuals, families, communities and countries, attending the CND is often a reality check on the slow, sometimes microscopic pace of change in this international forum on drug policies.

As the meeting commenced it became clear that there was something different in the air this year. For one the usual buzz around the presence of the US Drug Czar was strangely missing from the proceedings – his travel budget a victim of sequestration cuts, Gil Kerlikowski stayed home this year. Not a bad one to miss given the torturous task his staff might have had writing speaking notes to explain the recent situation in Colorado and Washington where voters passed resolutions to bring into existence a legal regulatory regime for adult non-medical use of cannabis.

Evo Morales, President of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, in his opening address to the Commission thanked the delegates for allowing Bolivia to re-join the conventions with a reservation that addressed Bolivia’s constitution, which upholds the use of coca leaf as a part of Bolivia’s cultural heritage. President Morales went on to ask whether there was tension in the room and he wondered if it was related to the knowledge that “the fight against drugs has failed globally?” He went on to chastise the US for trying to force Bolivia to curb its coca farming with threats and by tying eradication of coca to the building of schools in the 1980s. Morales’ words were strong in that he pointedly noted that efforts to control drug trafficking are intertwined with other geopolitical goals of “mastery” and “dominance”. Such bold statements are rare in the public forum at CND.

UNODC Director, Yuri Fedetov’s opening remarks were an interesting mix of the old and the new. While asserting that progress is being made on the global drug problem Fedetov acknowledged that international drug control policy cannot remain isolated from needed improvements in HIV services nor can it ignore discrimination and the lack of evidence-based services for people who use drugs. During the civil society session with the Director, Fedetov was animated and seemed to welcome the openness of the debate at this session where a number of questions focusing on drug policy reform surfaced.

Another fresh breath of air in this years event was New Zealand’s Minister of Revenue, Peter Dunne who addressed the Commission and explained the new and innovative legislation that will be coming before the New Zealand parliament in the fall that will address the many new psychoactive substances that are appearing almost daily that are unscheduled within the treaties. Under the proposed legislation, the Psychoactive Substances Bill, all of these new substances will be banned unless a manufacturer can prove that they pose no more than a low risk of harm. Rather than ban all new substances immediately the New Zealand government plan to put the onus on the industry to ensure the safety of their products and if they pass muster they will be placed in a regulatory schedule that will allow retail sales of the products under certain conditions.  When asked how this scheme was received by other delegations Minister Dunn said there was a great deal of interest in the proposed legislation and countries are watching closely to see the outcomes.

The Organization of American States review of drug policy in the western hemisphere that was mandated by the last Summit of the Americas in April 2012 was also a topic of interest as expectations begin to mount now that the review is coming to conclusion in the next couple of months.

All in all this years CND had some interesting moments if you read the tea leaves and listened to the buzz in the corridors. My take is that there is an implicit if not explicit recognition that the drug policy landscape is indeed changing, new approaches are being considered, and countries are beginning to demand a wider debate on policy. For the CND to remain relevant, these debates should be welcomed as an important opportunity at future meetings of the Commission.

Donald MacPherson

About Donald MacPherson

Donald MacPherson is the Executive Director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and one of Canada’s leading figures in drug policy. In 2000 he published Vancouver’s groundbreaking Four Pillars Drug Strategy that precipitated a broad public discussion on issues related to addiction.

Sign up for latest news and updates


This is a guest blog provided by Nazlee Maghsoudi. The Canadian Drug Policy attended HR17 and we are pleased to share this account of the conference.   With growing international attention…

insite vigil poem by the late Bud Osborn March 1, 2017

Last week, for the National Day of Action for the Overdose Crisis, we marched with 922 feathers, one for every life lost in BC in 2016. Our Executive Director, Donald MacPherson,…

In Memory of Raffi Balian February 22, 2017

Raffi Balian passed away on February 16, 2017 Raffi was one of the founding members of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition (CDPC). He was very excited that the founding group…

How to Help the Overdose Crisis December 21, 2016

As 2016 comes to a close, we reflect on the tragedy that continues to unfold in Canada; the unprecedented numbers of deaths from drug overdoses this year. At CDPC, we…

World AIDS Day 2016 – Three Papers To... December 1, 2016

World AIDS Day 2016 is on December 1st. View three important publications relating HIV/AIDS to harm reduction and drug policy. We will continue to work towards the equitable, safe and dignified treatment…

We’ve Been Here Before – Overdose Deaths in... November 24, 2016

Former BC Chief Coroner Vince Cain, in his report on British Colombia’s opioid overdose catastrophe in the nineties, conducted a thorough analysis of the problem we were facing then. Among…