UN meeting could be 1st step to ending global war on drugs

A special session of the UN General Assembly beginning today could be a critical first step to moving towards more effective — and more humane — drug policies.

General Assembly meets this week to debate future of global drug policy

It's estimated that about $100 billion is dedicated to fighting the war on drugs each year. (Gael Gonzalez/Reuters)

"A drug-free world — We can do it!"

That was the overly ambitious motto endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1998, the last time it convened for a high-level debate on global drug policy.

Eighteen years later it seems clear that, no, we can't do it.

Just ask the governments of Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala which, amid staggering violence fuelled by the international narcotics trade, have pleaded with the UN to radically rethink the war on drugs.

That rethink, or at least its early stages, could be near. 

Today, the UN General Assembly will meet to scrutinize the UN treaties that, critics argue, are steering the Sisyphean delusion of a "drug-free world." A wide breadth of world leaders, academics, public health and human rights advocates are among those calling for significant reforms. 

The special session may mark "the beginning of the end for international support for the war on drugs," wrote Bill Bogart, a law professor at the University of Windsor and author, in a recent editorial

Will the United Nations end the war on drugs?

7 years ago
Duration 5:42
Featured VideoFormer drug warriors are converging on the UN this week to recommend and end to drug prohibition.

"Clearly, it's been a colossal failure. There's countries who have had enough and are saying it loudly. That's something that would've been unheard of even five or ten years ago," he told CBC News in an interview.

Intergenerational damage

Drug policies of UN member states must adhere to three global treaties. The most expansive and important is the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which prohibits the production and supply of certain drugs and criminalizes their use. It was ratified in 1961 and hasn't been amended since 1972.

The 1998 United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs reaffirmed the treaty, and agreed that member countries would work to stamp out illicit narcotics entirely within ten years.

It didn't work, but the war on drugs, continued anyway. 

Between 2007 and 2014, the bloodiest years of Mexico's militarized campaign to fight drug cartels, more than 164,000 people were killed. (Jorge Duenes/Reuters)

The human costs are tremendous and well documented around the world: mass incarceration, corruption, human rights abuses, public health crises and violence. People of colour, indigenous communities, women and children were disproportionately affected by the post-1998 crackdown, according to the UN's own research. 

Despite about $100 billion US being spent on anti-drug law enforcement efforts each year, the size of the illicit drug trade has only continued to increase. The most current estimates put it between $300 billion and $500 billion US per year.

"It's been long enough that we now have data on the terrible intergenerational effects of the war on drugs," says Chris Beyrer, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health and Human Rights in Maryland.

Cannabis will be 'the elephant in the room'

Beyrer is a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a group that includes former heads of state and high-ranking diplomats. The commission released a report last month that recommended decriminalization of non-violent minor drug offences and an emphasis on harm reduction for the 11 per cent of illegal drug users worldwide who suffer from an addiction. 

Some countries have already started to move in this direction, despite the treaties. Supervised injection sites here in Canada and in Europe are arguably in contravention, for example, and cannabis legalization — if it happens in Canada — will be too. 

War on drugs a failure

8 years ago
Duration 2:23
Featured VideoGlobal public policy failure has harmed both health and human rights

The growing movement for legal pot in North America and parts of South America "will undoubtedly be the elephant in the room," during this week's meeting, says Bogart. 

"No matter what comes out of the special session, legal cannabis is what's going to cause the international order on drugs to collapse."

But for now, the meeting is a chance for Canada's delegation, led by Health Minister Jane Philpott, to "send a strong message to the world" on the need for reform, according to Donald MacPherson, an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

"There's an opportunity to say, 'Yes, we're in breach of the treaties, but that's a problem with the treaties, not us,'" says MacPherson, who is also director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. 

'Inertia to change'

Such a move would underscore the growing schism between countries pushing for profound changes to global drug policy and those that continue to take a hard line on prohibition and criminalization, including Russia and China. 

That tension was evident in the run-up to the meeting as the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs — the body with the most influence over UN drug policy — drafted an "outcome document." It's essentially a list of recommendations and goals, compiled from submissions by all kinds of stakeholders, to be debated during the special session. 

Cannabis legalization will be a contentious topic at the UN meeting. As more countries and states move towards legalization, it will become more pressing to update the UN global drug treaties, experts say. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

The final draft does not contain the term "harm reduction," MacPherson points out, despite 90 countries having harm reduction elements in their national drug policies. 

Its conspicuous absence is a symptom of the "incredible resistance and inertia to change within the UN system" and the influence of countries who maintain that harm reduction is "just a Trojan horse for drug legalization," he says. 

The Commission on Narcotic Drugs even seemed to ignore depositions from other UN agencies, including the World Health Organization and UN Women, both of which advocate for policy centred on harm reduction. 

"There is clearly no consensus on key issues and consensus will probably never be possible," MacPherson adds. ​


Lucas Powers

Senior Writer

Lucas Powers is a Toronto-based reporter and writer. He's reported for CBC News from across Canada. Have a story to tell? Email any time.