The UN General Assembly is concerned with International Drug Policy in April 2016

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“I believe that drugs have destroyed many lives,
but wrong government policies have destroyed many more.”
Kofi Annan, ehemaliger UN-Generalsekreträr

The Wind of Change still blows calmly, but it blows. For the first time since 1998 the General Assembly of the United Nations (UNGASS) is concerned with the worldwide drug problem. And for the first time there is a real chance for a substantial change in the disastrous worldwide drug policies. Let’s not expect that the UNGASS will call for a revolution. This body is far too much oriented towards consensus and diplomatic balance for such a step. But very close to the surface there is big change going on, particularly within the UNODC, an organisation that for decades has been the spearhead of US-American-led “war-on-drugs” policies. But now it begins to collect and discuss evidence for a better, evidence-based drug policy. The unity in the war on drugs has crumbled. Too devastating are the results and side-effects. Side-effects of what? Of the attempt to solve a health problem with the means of criminal law.

The UNGASS special session meets in five round tables from April 19th-April 21st. It deals with the following aspects:

  1. Drugs and health: Demand reduction, including prevention and treatment, as well as health-related issues; and ensuring the availability of controlled substances for medical and scientific purposes
  2. Drugs and crime: Supply reduction and related measures; responses to drug-related crime; and countering money-laundering and promoting judicial cooperation
  3. Cross-cutting issues: drugs and human rights, youth, women, children and communities
  4. Cross-cutting issues: new challenges, threats and realities in preventing and addressing the world drug problem in compliance with relevant international law, including the three drug control conventions; strengthening the principle of common and shared responsibility and international cooperation
  5. Alternative development; regional, interregional and international cooperation on development-oriented balanced drug control policy; addressing socioeconomic issues

Of course it’s not the first time in the history of the 55-year-old history of the UN-Drug Control Treaties, that substantial critisism over the success of the treaties emerges. Yet never before this criticism has been expressed by such a number of circles bound to be taken seriously. Among these are top-ranking politicians, former presidents and figures of public life – and even more important at the moment – if not the most important – medicial expert boards vote for policy chance. Ranking among those circles are the Global Commission on Drug Policy – including among others the former Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan, the conservative former US Secretary of State George Shultz, human rights politicians like Luise Arbour, bankers like John C. Whitehead and entrepreneurs like Richard Branson. Is is merely a matter of accident that this commission does include Swiss members, but not a single German? Possibly this expresses the deplorable state of German drug policy discussion – often caught in the treadmill of moralism, naiveté, fear of the drug demon and misconceived “hardness” on drugs (“to-be-hard-on-drugs” still seems to be a demand often expressed by journalists when it comes to interviewing US-presidential candidates).

With The Lancet one of the most important medical journals invokes a clear call for international policy reform. Issue 387, April 2nd 2016 is dedicated to the results of the Johns Hopkins–Lancet Commission on Drug Policy and Health. Hard to imagine that a serious drug politician will get around these arguments (and how about the abilitities of – German and others – prosecutors and judges in expressing conclusive arguments for their pofessional view on drug laws?). Already a UN-internal assessment of progress in achieving the aim of a “drug free world” came to the conclusion that millions of people had to be added as consumers of heroine, cocaine, amphetamine-like substances or cannabis since 1998. “A drug free world – we can do it!” used to be the counter-productive motto of the UN general assembly on the drug problem hosted in 1998. More “hardness”, policing, juridical and military “consequence” doesn’t lead to an improvement in drug problems, much less to reduction of drug use (demand).

“This report showed that prohibition as a policy has failed dismally. (…) it is time for
UNGASS to put health at the centre of reassessing and reforming international drug policy”
The Lancet Commission

Suggestions that can be read in this report all point to further decriminalisation of use and possession, supply of medical resources, abolishment and reduction of penalities for minor offenses – those policies that are the basis of incarceration of millions of people. Incarceration that deteriorated the problems and ruined the health of numerous humans. Indeed a human rights issue – or drama.

Presumably the German delegation will adopt a moderate attitude, voting for a pragmatic health-oriented policy – without finding the courage for fundamental, game-changing reforms. This would require serious political discussion in German parties and the Bundestag – something that is usually avoided due to permanent election campaigning. These are some of the basic things that need to be demanded from politicians and journalists concerned with drug policy issues:

  • Talk to each other about drug policy beyond party limits and on the platform of health policy
  • Take notice of experts’ arguments
  • Stop reducing drug policy to moralisms. Alcohol and drug consumers are not bad people (at least not because of their use)
  • Stop fantasizing about a drug free world
  • Take consumers’ health as serious as those of abstinent citizens (of which we hardly have any, considering that alcohol and tobacco should be considered a drug)
  • Take this serious: alcohol is a drug
  • Say Goodbye to failed benchmarks of success: if you consider supply and demand reduction the single benchmark of drug politicy – not a lot will improve

The latter needs to be elaborated: the fact that alcohol or cannabis consumption drops or rises by 5 percentage points is often the (only) criterion for reports of success or failure in drug policy. This is the wrong way – having been initiated by the 1961 Single convention – and completing those demand and supply measures should be a number one priority for drug policies. Otherwise politicians build their own prisons.

“To meaningfully evaluate illicit drug policies, then, indicators that measure so-called real-world outcomes of relevance to communities need to be prioritised. Fortunately, robust and detailed indicators have been developed to assess a range of impacts of drug policies on community health, safety, development, and human rights.”
Lancet 2016: A call to reprioritise metrics to evaluate illicit drug policy

This is all about measures like hepatitis-C-infections or criminal statistics – not only about the if and how much of drug use.

Personally I am very happy that our young organisation FINDER is able to send a representative to UNGASS 2016: Maximilian von Heyden. We are looking forward to his reports.

Further resources

Dr. Henrik Jungaberle is a social scientist and prevention practitioner. His focus is on human development, integration and integrity in the use of psychoactive substances – and shaping this on the individual, social and political level. He develops and implements strategies to avoid or minimize the negative consequences of alcohol and other drug use.