International drug policy: Is the UN becoming irrelevant?

International drug policy: Is the UN becoming irrelevant?
© Getty Images

When the wave of adult marijuana legalization in some states started in 2013, the position of the federal authorities regarding the government’s international obligations to prohibit drugs was based on a flexible interpretation of the United Nations drug conventions, commonly known as the Brownfield doctrine. The legality of this interpretation has been questioned by the U.N. convention-control bodies. But as the U.S. administration grows more suspicious of multilateralism, is the United Nations still equipped, technically and politically, to be heard?

At the U.N. Special Session on drugs (UNGASS) held in 2016, almost every country that spoke in the General Assembly hall emphasized how high drugs were on their national agendas. Yet they all agreed that the 2019 review of the decennial U.N. political declaration and the plan of action on drugs would take the form of simple ministerial meeting at a subsidiary U.N. commission based in Vienna, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND). This can be interpreted as proof that drug policy is not taken as seriously, despite how it impacts people’s lives on the ground.

ADVERTISEMENT

International drug policy is different from other highly covered topics in the multilateral system for one main reason: no global player or P5 member has any apparent interest in opening a reform discussion, unlike for environmental, HIV or migration policies that benefit from large human, financial and communication resources.

 

The United States, which initiated the global war on drugs over 50 years ago, finds itself in a situation where its states are legalizing cannabis by ballot or legislative votes in contradiction with the U.N. drug conventions, while the country faces an unprecedented opioid overdose crisis that undermines every belief that prohibition results in effective drug control or is able to act as a deterrent for use.

Thus, the Russian Federation has replaced the United States as the protector of prohibition in the multilateral system, firmly rejecting the societal harms of prohibition and insisting on its vital role to fight the “evil” of addiction and to counter organized crime. China has adopted a similar position, with the noticeable difference that it does not question the efficiency of some forms of treatment or harm-reduction services, and delivers them as part of its health systems.

The United Kingdom and France are absent from this debate, and adopt the common position of the European Union, which reaffirms, on the one hand, the European principles in the protection of human rights at large but reiterates, on the other, that the drug conventions are the cornerstone of the drug control regime globally.

The fundamental problem with maintaining this allegiance to the conventions — whether they are flexible or not — is that they are outdated and effectively broken by countries and states conducting experiments with legalized markets. In many parts of the world, public opinion is shifting away from blind prohibition and requesting reforms and pilot projects to initiate better approaches to controlling the presence of drugs, without human or societal collateral damages.

This widening gap between the reality on the ground, where local and national initiatives are implementing reforms, and the United Nations, where multilateral diplomacy is concerned with preserving its own agenda, the P5 countries risk making the United Nations irrelevant on a topic that is essential to the environmental, social and economic dimensions of sustainable development.

Regardless of how much evidence the U.N. entities provide and call for reforms, they will not take place at the multilateral level until a P5 country such as the United States decides to take interest in the highly-needed international drug policy reform. If it did, it would allow states to move with their reforms without having to immediately answer to an almost ineffective multilateral control regime.

Nevertheless, with the current U.S. administration’s positions on multilateralism, combined with internal political crises in other P5 countries, it seems unlikely that any P5-driven reform of the international drug control regime will happen in the foreseeable future, posing a serious threat to the respect of international law and to the role of the United Nations when it comes to universal and shared transnational strategies for drug control.

Khalid Tinasti is executive secretary of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. He previously worked as an independent consultant for UNAIDS, WHO, and the Graduate Institute, and as a communications officer in the Office of the Minister of Urban Cohesion in France.