UNGASS: World Drug Problem

Lindesmith Letter to Kofi Annan

Under the leadership of Ethan Nadelmann, The Lindesmith Center (which later became the Drug Policy Alliance) coordinated an open letter to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan in anticipation of the 1998 United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem. Appearing in the New York Times, the letter was signed by more than 500 prominent academics, scientists and political leaders. The coalition urged the U.N. to call off its "failed and futile" policies and instigate "honest dialogue regarding the future of global drug control policies -- one in which fear, prejudice and punitive prohibitions yield to common sense, science, public health and human rights." Prominent signatories included former U.N. Chief Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru, Nobel Laureate and ex-Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz and U.S. Senators Alan Cranston and Claireborne Pell. The campaign reverberated around the world, gaining major media coverage in more than three dozen countries.


UNGASS 1998 disappointed the global drug policy reform movement with its perpetuation of unsuccessful, unrealistic strategies. UNGASS was originally brought together to create a forum for in-depth reflection on the effectiveness and viability of drugs control over the past decade. Despite heated North-South debate in the U.N. and a high-profile advocacy campaign coordinated by The Lindesmith Center, the inaugural New York meeting merely rehashed unrealistic assurances of a drug-free world.

The result was a declaration outlining a so-called 'comprehensive' global strategy for the simultaneous reduction of both illicit supply and demand. The Assembly laid out a mandate for the U.N. International Drug Control Programme "….to develop strategies with a view to eliminating or significantly reducing the illicit cultivation of the coca bush, the cannabis plant and the opium poppy by the year 2008." The UNGASS motto became, "A Drug Free World - We can do it!"

Eradication operations were aimed at Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Myanmar, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Viet Nam, Afghanistan and Pakistan. These countries were expected to pay for a third of the eradication programs and would only receive generous loan opportunities from the World Bank if their anti-drug programs showed success.

A Worsening Global Drug Problem

Four years later, official U.N. figures showed that the use of cannabis, cocaine, heroin and other drugs had not decreased. HIV/AIDS and hepatitis rates across the globe continued to soar; the dimension of the global illegal drugs trade continued expanding; and crop spraying in Colombia and Bolivia created serious new threats to public health and the environment that have had a deleterious social and economic impact.

Mid-way Review: 2003

An April 2003 mid-term review that brought together ministers and diplomats from the around the world did not result in meaningful reforms, despite a lack of evidence that the UNGASS plan had achieved any measurable success. The critical evaluation component originally requested by Mexico failed to materialize. Prohibitionist ideology continued to dominate the review process. Despite optimism over the growing number of European countries that have abandoned draconian drug war tactics in favor of harm reduction alternatives, European politicians have yet to stand against the U.S. or define an alternative development policy framework for dealing with illicit drug production and trafficking.