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A demonstration at UNGASS in New York. Photograph: CAmeron Price
A demonstration at UNGASS in New York. Photograph: CAmeron Price

SocietyApril 23, 2016

Did the global war on drugs just die in New York?

A demonstration at UNGASS in New York. Photograph: CAmeron Price
A demonstration at UNGASS in New York. Photograph: CAmeron Price

A huge global drug summit has just wrapped up at the United Nations. Was it the turning point that many hoped for? The NZ Drug Foundation’s Cameron Price was there.

In 1998, member states of the United Nations gathered in New York and ambitiously declared a commitment to achieving a drug free world by 2008.

Since then, the global consensus on a prohibitionist approach to drugs has crumbled: Portugal decriminalised all drug use at the turn of the millennium; Uruguay became the first country to legalise cannabis in 2014; once the world’s leading drug warrior, the USA now has four states plus Washington DC with legal pot; the Swiss government now prescribes heroin to users; the Mexican Supreme Court recently ruled in favour of a citizen’s right to use weed. And on and on.

A demonstration at UNGASS in New York. Photograph: CAmeron Price
A demonstration at UNGASS in New York. Photograph: Cameron Price

World leaders are finally cottoning on to the fact that eradicating drugs is impossible. Humans have been getting high for thousands of years, and billions of dollars spent on enforcement over the last few decades hasn’t done anything to change that. You can’t win a war against human nature.

This year’s meeting (known as a UN General Assembly Special Session, or UNGASS for short) was originally slated for 2019, but it was brought forward at the request of the Presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala. South America has borne the brunt of the war on drugs (a recent report found that the drug war has led to a decrease in life expectancy of Mexican men by half a year). The heads of state said they couldn’t allow the current situation to go on any longer.

The prospect of change was promising. In an admirable reversal, Kofi Annan, head of the UN during the ’98 summit, argued in the lead-up to UNGASS that all drugs should be decriminalised and urged countries to accept that “a drug-free world is an illusion.” The UN High Commission on Human Rights published a report saying “criminalisation of possession and use has been shown to cause significant obstacles to the right to health.”

But what actually transpired was a frustrating display of division and a fractious lack of compromise.

The “outcomes document”, the culmination of the negotiations, fell far short of what many people had hoped. Despite a majority of countries pushing for a health- and welfare-centred approach, there was no mention of the term ‘harm reduction’ in the document, nor any commitment to ending the death penalty for drug offences.

That’s because the document is written on the basis of consensus: if any nation objects to a clause, it is removed or changed. It’s a case of the prohibitionist tail wagging the reformist dog.


The Spinoff is teaming up with Ika restaurant for a Table Talk discussion, Beyond Prohibition, on Tuesday April 26 in Auckland. Taking part are Ali Mau, Russell Brown, Kevin Hague, Hirini Kaa, and Chris Wilkins. More information here.


Countries such as Indonesia, China and Iran execute hundreds of people each year for drug offences. Despite a large portion of the General Assembly booing the Indonesian minister when he defended the death penalty as “an important component” in their drug policy, he got his way and any reference to its abolition was removed.

Harm reduction services, such as needle exchanges to prevent users getting hepatitis from dirty needles, were opposed by Russia despite overwhelming evidence of effectiveness. Support for these lifesaving interventions was scrubbed from the final declaration. The dream of a forward thinking approach was killed by the bureaucratic nightmare that is the United Nations.

And criticism wasn’t just reserved for the substance of the negotiations. The process by which they occurred was roundly slammed as being exclusionary.

Peter Dunne does his thing at the UN. Photograph: Cameron Price
Peter Dunne struts his stuff at the UN. Photograph: Cameron Price

The outcomes document was actually drafted behind closed doors in a meeting of the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna in March. Bizarrely, the first order of business on the first day of the three day summit was to vote on and pass the document. Many were left wondering what the point of the rest of the negotiations were for, given any debate was pointless if it wasn’t reflected in the declaration.

Calls from the UN for input from civil society turned out to be tokenistic, as delegates ignored the considered recommendations of organisations with first-hand experience of the harms of prohibition.

In a disturbing symbolism reflective of the problems with consultation, students who had gathered from around the world were shut out of a roundtable discussing the perspectives of youth. Instead, the panel of speakers was made up entirely of middle-aged diplomats.

But it wasn’t all bad: Canada’s Health Minister Jane Philpott reaffirmed her government’s commitment to legalising and regulating cannabis and announced that legislation would be introduced in the Spring of 2017. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto argued that “we must move beyond prohibition to effective prevention”. Even the US Surgeon-General said that “the war on drugs is a war on people” – unthinkable even five years ago.

And New Zealand took centre stage as progressive reformers. In his speech to the General Assembly, associate minister of health Peter Dunne said that the glacial pace of reform isn’t good enough and urged countries to be bold. In an incredible statement which was not picked up on by media, he argued that legal regulation, not prohibition, is the key to reducing harm from drugs.

On the summit’s final day Tuari Potiki, NZ Drug Foundation’s board chair, was chosen as just one of five non-government speakers to address the General Assembly. In a rousing speech which was met with applause from activists and state delegates alike, Mr Potiki gave a personal account of how a judge’s decision to send him to treatment instead of prison when he was a young injecting drug user changed the course of his life.

In addition to telling the assembled delegates that “we must stop criminalising people who need our help,” he also called for a greater focus on the harms that prohibition causes indigenous peoples. “As indigenous people we have the solutions to our problems, including our drug problems. But we have to be included,” he said.

If anything, this year’s meeting exposed the inability of the United Nations to corral nations to unite in a global approach to drugs. Despite this impotence, or maybe emboldened by it, jurisdictions around the world will continue to experiment with drug policy reform. Some will liberalise, while others while ramp up the regressive policies which cause more harm than drugs ever could.

Although its significance won’t be immediately clear, this year’s UNGASS will be remembered as the moment when the global consensus on drug prohibition evaporated.

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