The Road to 2016 – Drug Policy Consensus Shattered

There’s a Crack in Everything – That’s How the Light Gets In (with thanks to Leonard Cohen)

I couldn’t help it. Sometimes my mind would wander while attending the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) meeting in Vienna – the annual drug policy palooza where UN member states gather to shore up the failed prohibitionist policies of the past. Even an unanticipated Russell Brand appearance could do only so much to enliven the sessions.

In those mind-wandering moments, I found myself humming Leonard Cohen’s famous song “Anthem,” especially the beautiful line: “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

I suppose my mind wasn’t so much wandering, as it was synthesizing the stark disconnect between the evidence presented at the outset of the meeting – in fact, the science at the heart of the enterprise – and the actual decisions arrived at by CND delegates.

There is unquestionably a crack in the consensus in these global discussions, a crack that may well end up being a chasm as wide as the Grand Canyon by the time the UN Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) takes place in 2016 in New York.


As for the light, that came in part from the two stellar UN-appointed scientific panels that reported out at the beginning of the meeting. Michel Kazatchkine, UN Envoy to Eastern Europe and Asia on HIV, and Nora Volkow, Director of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse, chaired panels that delivered strong statements on the need for problematic drug use to be dealt with as a public health issue not a criminal issue. Kazatchkine’s group noted: “Criminalization of drug use, restrictive drug policies and aggressive law enforcement practices are key drivers of HIV and Hepatitis C epidemics.” Volkow’s group added: “We consider that criminal sanctions are not beneficial in addressing substance use disorders and discourage their use.”

The divide between the above statements and the content of the negotiations at the CND was vast – the overwhelming majority of delegates clung to the status quo and refused to even consider language on decriminalization. Clearly we’ve made very little progress since Portugal (2001) and the Czech Republic (2009) decriminalized all drugs for personal use, on their own without fanfare or bringing it up at the CND.

Harm Reduction

In a somewhat Orwellian turn of language control, a number of countries including Canada demanded the words ‘harm’ and ‘reduction’ not appear side by side, but they could endorse “measures aimed at minimizing the negative public health and social impacts of drug abuse that are outlined in the WHO, UNODC, UNAIDS Technical Guide.”

Harm reduction, in other words.

These programs are the most cost effective way to engage people who use drugs and often the only bridge to more mainstream public health services. The scientific panel offered clear statements on the benefits and cost-effectiveness: “Harm reduction interventions are good value for money, with average costs per HIV infection averted ranging from $100 to $1,000.”

Apparently scientists can use the words, but not the members of the CND.

Death Penalty

Switzerland, with support from others, pushed hard at the meeting for the Joint Ministerial Statement to clearly state the death penalty was not an appropriate response to drug offenses of any kind. In the end they failed, being blocked by countries like Iran, China and a number of other Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Canada’s silence on this discussion was deafening.

The Swiss allowed the “consensus” document to go forward but not without delivering the following statement at the end of the meeting:

“The death penalty is in opposition to our position with regard to all offences. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says that it should only be applied for very serious crimes and therefore very rarely. The human rights committee says we should very much limit the use of the death penalty. The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) said that its application was never in the spirit of the (drug) conventions. The INCB encourages countries to consider its abolition. In this background, the silence of the Joint Ministerial Statement (JMS) on the death penalty is regrettable. It does not take into account our position and that of other (UN) bodies. We will continue to promote the abolition of the death penalty. We ask that our agreement with the JMS is on this understanding – capital punishment is not in line with our commitment to combat the world drug problem. International cooperation on drug law enforcement is contingent to respect for all human rights – as well as the right to life.”

2016 UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS)

If there’s one thing that we learned while attending the CND it’s that any meaningful consensus on new approaches to addressing drug problems globally will be near impossible to attain when the biggest international drug policy meeting in 20 years – UNGASS 2016 – takes place in two years at the UN General Assembly in New York.

This meeting was called in response to the pleas from the presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala a little over a year ago, calling on the UN to facilitate real dialogue on alternative approaches to the global drug problems.

UNGASS is huge because it will undoubtedly precipitate a new approach to drug policy – either through the development of a more progressive global consensus, or, more likely, because it will shatter the distorted idea that a global consensus is possible.

Either way, countries should be free to chart their own appropriate path forward to address drug problems, grounded in the public health and human rights imperatives enshrined in various UN conventions, without the shackles of the misguided and restrictive drug control treaties.

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
– Leonard Cohen, Anthem

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.

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