The Outcome of UNGASS 2016: Perpetuating Failure

“UNGASS has not seriously addressed the critical flaws of international drug policy.

-Global Commission on Drug Policy[i]

* * * * *


Last week, the United Nations General Assembly held a special session on the topic of the world drug problem (referred to as UNGASS 2016).[ii] From April 19th to the 21st, representatives from all over the world met at the UN headquarters in New York to discuss various issues regarding the international organization’s approach to drug policy.[iii] The decision to hold the special session on drug policy came in response to calls from world leaders who have become frustrated with the continuous failure of the UN’s current approach to drug issues.[iv] However, despite the growing outcry for a better approach, UNGASS 2016 seems to have done little, if anything, to resolve frustrations with the prevailing drug policy framework adopted by the UN.


Designed to Fail

It seems that efforts were made early on to ensure that UNGASS 2016 would not produce any meaningful reform. On the first day of the conference, the General Assembly adopted an “outcome document” that had been written by the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs months in advance.[v] The document is mostly a reaffirmation of commitment to the UN’s existing drug control regime,[vi] which is governed by three international conventions and characterized by its strict prohibitionist stance towards illicit substances.[vii] By adopting the outcome document at the beginning of the three-day conference, the General Assembly ensured that any information disclosed in the round table discussions taking place throughout the conference would have no immediate impact on the UN’s official drug policy position. As Richard Branson, the famous entrepreneur and commissioner of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, stated, “UNGASS was flawed from the start. . . . The process was a closed-door affair and excluded important voices from across the UN and civil society.”[viii]

Maintaining the Status Quo

The outcome document calls for countries to take a more humanitarian approach to drug policy, and for countries to cooperate better when it comes to enforcement of drug laws.[ix] However, advocacy groups, as well as some former world leaders who have been calling for reform, have criticized the adopted outcome document as being unrealistic and unlikely to cause any substantive change.[x] With regards to the outcome document, Branson claims that “[t]he declaration is long and rhetoric and very short on substance. It’s out of step with world sentiment and doubles down on status quo.”[xi] The Global Commission on Drug Policy, which includes many former world leaders among its commissioners,[xii] released a public statement condemning the adopted outcome document.[xiii] According to the statement, “[t]he [outcome] document does not acknowledge the comprehensive failure of the current drug control regime to reduce drug supply and demand. . . . By reaffirming that the three international conventions are the ‘cornerstone of global drug policy’, the document sustains an unacceptable and outdated legal status quo.”[xiv]


The Future of International Drug Policy

Although the failure of UNGASS 2016 to produce any substantive reforms could have been expected,[xv] some argue that the UN’s unwillingness to consider reforms to drug policy may cause the international organization to “become increasingly irrelevant as countries independently seek their own solutions.”[xvi] Some countries have already begun to break away from the UN’s drug policy framework.[xvii] For example, Portugal has decriminalized the use and possession of all drugs,[xviii] and Uruguay, Canada, and several US states have moved towards legalizing the sale and recreational use of marijuana.[xix]

Hope for the Future

For the more optimistic advocates of drug policy reform, UNGASS 2016 demonstrated that momentum is growing in favor of reform.[xx] Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, observed a “remarkable level of mobilization” of advocates for reform.[xxi] The UN will take up the issue of drug policy again in 2019, which is the target date set for the international community to meet certain benchmarks set forth in the UN’s 2009 Plan of Action.[xxii] Although that date will be too late for the many who will suffer drug-related deaths between now and then, if momentum for change continues to grow, 2019 may finally be the year that the world decides to endorse a more effective approach to drug policy.


[i] Public Statement by the Global Commission on Drug Policy on UNGASS 2016, Global Commission on Drug Pol’y (Apr. 21, 2016),
[ii] See United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime, UNGASS 2016, (last visited Apr. 22, 2016).
[iii] See id.
[iv] See Int’l Drug Policy Consortium, The UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) 2016, Idpc, (last visited Apr. 22, 2016).
[v] Farnaz Fassihi, U.N. Conference on Drugs Ends Without Shift in Policy, Wall St. J., Apr. 22, 2016,; United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime, About, UNGASS 2016, (last visited Apr. 22, 2016).
[vi] For the Commission’s final draft of the outcome document, 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).
[vii] For a description of the UN’s approach to drug policy, see Brian A. Ford, From Mountains to Molehills: A Comparative Analysis of Drug Policy, 19 Ann. Surv. Int’l & Comp. L. 197, 201-06 (2013).
[viii] Will Godfrey, Global Commission Slams UN Drug Summit Outcome as Straining the Credibility of International Law, The Influence (Apr. 21, 2016),
[ix] Fassihi, supra note 5.
[x] Id.
[xi] Id.
[xii] Commissioners, Global Commission on Drug Pol’y, (last visited Apr. 23, 2016).
[xiii] Global Commission on Drug Pol’y, supra note 1.
[xiv] Id.
[xv] Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post for Michigan State University’s International Law Review that described my expectations for UNGASS 2016.
[xvi] Godfrey, supra note 8.
[xvii] Fassihi, supra note 5.
[xviii] See id. For information on Portugal’s decriminalization scheme, see Glen Greenwald, Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies 9 (2009).
[xix] Fassihi, supra note 5.
[xx] See Godfrey, supra note 8.
[xxi] Id.
[xxii] 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), available at