UNGASS 2016: What to Expect from the Upcoming Special Assembly to Address the World Drug Problem

"Evidence shows that drug control laws with disproportionately heavy punishments have fueled mass incarceration, often in violation of universally accepted standards of fairness and freedom from torture and ill treatment. Evidence also shows that drug control efforts often have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups and marginalized communities: peasant farmers, low-level drug offenders, such as those transporting or selling small quantities of drugs, and racial and ethnic minorities or indigenous peoples. In many countries, a disproportionate share of those incarcerated are poor racial or ethnic minorities. Incarceration, in turn, fuels poverty and social exclusion."


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Soon, we may hear world leaders expressing opinions on the world drug problem that indicate a remarkable loss of confidence in the traditional approach to drug policy. From April 19th to the 21st, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly will be gathering for a special session (UNGASS 2016) at the UN Headquarters in New York to discuss issues related to drug policy.[ii] UNGASS 2016 will consist of a general debate and a series of round tables addressing many different drug-related policy topics, such as demand and supply reduction measures, health-related issues, responses to drug-related crimes, prevention of money-laundering, human rights concerns, and international cooperation.[iii] “Round table 4,” which is scheduled for the morning of April 21st,[iv] will cover the subjects of “[n]ew challenges, threats and realities in preventing and addressing the world drug problem in compliance with relevant international law, including the three drug control conventions; [and] [s]trengthening the principle of common and shared responsibility and cooperation, including technical assistance, leading up to 2019.”[v] The mere fact that these subjects are being addressed in a special assembly indicates that the current international drug control scheme is facing significant difficulties.

Three Years Early

In the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2009 Political Declaration and Action Plan, the year 2019 was set as a target date for countries to meet certain benchmarks in furtherance of international drug policy.[vi] Accordingly, 2019 was the next time that the General Assembly planned to hold a special session on the issue of drugs.[vii] However, in 2012, the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico pressed the UN to consider drug policy reform at a sooner date.[viii] In response, the General Assembly agreed to move up the special session on drugs to 2016.[ix] The decision to convene a special assembly to address the drug problem before the planned 2019 date highlights the growing frustrations with the current international drug control regime.


What is Expected?

It’s unlikely that there will be any immediate, significant change in the policy framework provided by the three UN drug conventions.[x] There hasn’t been any serious shift in international drug law since the last convention was enacted in 1988. Previous special assemblies on drug policy have resulted in the General Assembly adopting resolutions and declarations reaffirming a commitment to the existing framework.[xi] The UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs has already prepared a draft resolution that is to be considered during the special session, and, similar to those resolutions resulting from past special sessions, reaffirms commitment to the policies of the UN drug conventions.[xii]

Rather than any significant policy change, the highlight of UNGASS 2016 will likely be an unprecedented display of dissatisfaction among world leaders with the approach to drug policy currently provided under international law. It’s no secret that the so-called “war on drugs” has been a tremendous failure. As leaders continue to struggle with finding an effective way to deal with their countries’ drug problems, international law currently operates as a constraining force by limiting the permissible policy options available.[xiii] The UN’s approach to drug policy has become a seriously divisive issue, as was evidenced by a leaked UN document from 2013.[xiv] While the nearly three-decades-old approach to drug policy continues to fail, the voices of discontent will continue to grow. Next week, expect those voices to demand attention at UNGASS 2016.


[i] Addressing the Development Dimensions of Drug Policy, UNDP (June 2015), available at http://www.undp.org/content/dam/undp/library/HIV-AIDS/Discussion-Paper--Addressing-the-Development-Dimensions-of-Drug-Policy.pdf.
[ii] For more information on the special session, see United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime, UNGASS 2016, http://www.unodc.org/ungass2016/ (last visited Apr. 7, 2016).
[iii] G.A. Res. 70/181, ¶ 3, U.N. Doc. A/RES/70/181 (Dec. 17, 2015).
[iv] United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime, supra note 2.
[v] G.A. Res. 70/181, supra note 3, ¶ 3(f).
[vi] U.N. Office on Drugs & Crime, Political Declaration and Plan of Action on International Cooperation Towards an Integrated and Balanced Strategy to Counter the World Drug Problem, at 14 (Mar. 2009) [hereinafter 2009 Political Declaration], available at http://www.unodc.org/documents/ungass2016/V0984963-English.pdf.
[vii] Int’l Drug Policy Consortium, The UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) 2016, Idpc, http://idpc.net/policy-advocacy/the-un-general-assembly-special-session-on-drugs-ungass-2016 (last visited Apr. 7, 2016).
[viii] See id.
[ix] See id.
[x] See Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, as amended by the Protocol Amending the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, Aug. 8, 1975, 26 U.S.T. 1439, 976 U.N.T.S. 105; Convention on Psychotropic Substances, Feb. 21, 1971, 32 U.S.T. 543, 1019 U.N.T.S. 175; Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, Dec. 19, 1988, 1582 U.N.T.S. 95.
[xi] For the resolutions and the political declarations annexed therein adopted by the General Assembly following a special session in 1998, see G.A. Res. S-20/2, U.N. Doc. A/RES/S-20/2 (June 10, 1998); G.A. Res. S-20/3, U.N. Doc. A/Res/S-20/3 (June 10, 1998). For the declaration adopted by the General Assembly following a special session in 2009, see 2009 Political Declaration, supra note 6.
[xii] See United Nations, Econ. & Soc. Council, Comm. on Narcotic Drugs, Revised Draft Resolution Submitted by the Chair, U.N. Doc. E/CN.7/2016/L.12/Rev.1 (Mar. 22, 2016).
[xiii] For a critique of the policy framework provided by the UN drug conventions, see Brian A. Ford, From Mountains to Molehills: A Comparative Analysis of Drug Policy, 19 Ann. Surv. Int’l & Comp. L. 197 (2013).
[xiv] Jamie Doward, Leaked Paper Reveals UN Split Over War on Drugs, The Guardian, Nov. 30, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/nov/30/un-drugs-policy-split-leaked-paper.