Last week, world leaders gathered in New York for the most significant international drug policy meeting in almost two decades, the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS). The last UNGASS took place in 1998 under the unrealistic slogan “A drug free world, we can do it!”.
Much has changed since then. In the last few years, there has been unprecedented momentum for drug policy reform. Public opinion is shifting to support new approaches; former and current world leaders are calling for reform; and cities, states and countries across the world are implementing harm reduction initiatives, criminal justice reforms, and marijuana regulation.
But by and large, nations gathered at the UN last week missed a key opportunity to critically reflect on the failures of decades-long drug prohibition, and to seek better ways forward.
When the presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala called for this UNGASS in 2012, they did so because their countries – and their region – were suffering a staggering human toll of the global drug war. Since 2012, an informal coalition of countries – largely from Latin America, Europe and the Caribbean – formed to ensure an open and inclusive debate at UNGASS. They worked hard to push for discussions that put all options on the table but countries that remain wedded to punitive approaches, such as Russia and states that still enact the death penalty for drug offenses, pushed back.
They fought over the language in the UNGASS outcome document, drafted in March at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna. This outcome document, incidentally, was approved by the General Assembly the morning the UNGASS debates began on April 19, in a baffling move that eliminated even the pretense that significant debate would follow for the rest of the session. And though there were some small victories in the outcome document, such as references to human rights, access to essential medicines and harm reduction initiatives (without explicitly using the phrase “harm reduction”), but on the whole, the document is business as usual, with no mention of needed reforms such as decriminalization, the abolition of the death penalty, or regulation of illicit substances.
But despite the UN’s inertia, there was a strong chorus of countries that used their time at the podium to call for progressive changes, including Canada, Jamaica, Uruguay, Colombia, Mexico, Czech Republic, and New Zealand. And, most notable of all, there emerged an unprecedented mobilization of our reform movement, a diverse, broad, and powerful coalition of individuals and organizations from around the world, united under the banner, Stop the Harm.
We staged rallies across the city; held events on race and the drug war at Columbia University and on faith and drug policy at the Abyssinian Baptist Church; took over a 16,000 square-foot space on Park Ave and installed a 3-day pop-up Museum of Drug Policy; we had performers in prohibition-era attire hand UN attendees copies of the "Post-Prohibition Times," a newspaper printout of a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urging him to set the stage “for real reform of global drug control policy.” This public letter included an unprecedented and impressive range of signatories from Senators Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders to former President Jimmy Carter, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, businessmen Warren Buffett, George Soros and Richard Branson, actors Michael Douglas and Jane Fonda, Super Bowl champion Tom Brady, singers John Legend and Mary J. Blige, activists Reverend Jesse Jackson, Gloria Steinem and Michelle Alexander, as well as distinguished legislators, cabinet ministers, and former UN officials.
Change is slow to come to the UN. But with citizens across the world pushing for reform, and with countries moving ahead with novel drug policies, sooner or later the UN too will have to change to reflect new realities on the ground, or risk becoming an irrelevant and ignored force in global drug control.
Hannah Hetzer is senior policy manager of the Americas at the Drug Policy Alliance.