Lisa Campbell

The irony of having a “high” level debate on drug policy escaped no one, except maybe the member states present at the United Nations General Assembly last Thursday May 7th. The High Level Thematic Debate (HLTD) on the 2016 Special Session on the World Drug Problem was the first of many conversations at the United Nations General Assembly leading up to UNGASS 2016. Yet with long speeches read from carefully crafted written notes, there very little room for debate. Civil society voices were notably absent from the morning dialog, until the afternoon when just two were allowed to address the global assembly. How do we get to a higher level, if the majority of member states seem still stuck on the process of how we should be creating a dialog on drug policy instead of talking about drugs themselves? Some were absent from the debate entirely.

While High Level Thematic Debates are common within the UN, there was a high sense of urgency in the air as the debate took off Thursday morning. During the morning session Yesid Reyes Alvarado, Minister of Justice and Law, Colombia urged the UN General Assembly to decriminalize drug use and not just focus on demand reduction. Mark J. Golding, Minister of Justice of Jamaica also gave powerful statements urging the UN General Assembly to reconsider cannabis within the international treaties and allow member states greater autonomy in scheduling. The European Union, Argentina and New Zealand all included harm reduction in their statements, which was refreshing given the majority of countries do not acknowledge it as an essential public health intervention. Russia also made some hilarious statements about starting a drug policy scientific institute, when there are peer reviewed journals citing the destructive effects of the domestic drug policy which bans Opiate Substitution Therapy (OST), and how it has cost countless lives nationally and now in newly annexed Crimea. Most exciting part of the morning was the panel, “Achievements and challenges by Member States in countering the world drug problem” which included Ruth Dreifuss, Member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy and Former Swiss President and Milton Romani, National Drug Board Secretary, Uruguay among others pushing for change. As well, civil society representative Sandy Mteirek, Advocacy Coordinator at Skoun, Lebanese Addictions Center (pictured above) also gave powerful remarks in the afternoon on the impact of drug policy on people who use drugs in Lebanon. The full statements are available on the CND Blog for further reading.

What was clear from the HLTD was a strong desire that discussing drugs would not just be business as usual, but that a frank honest debate was needed. What transpired was the exact opposite, mostly including recycled statements from the Commission on Narcotic Drugs last March. While we may think of the UN as a well-oiled machine, there are several barriers to having an open honest debate on drugs. One barrier that came up frequently was the lack of funding for civil society engagement, despite all efforts to include them. Even member states were short on resources to prepare, as drugs are not apart of the normal duties of Permanent Missions based in New York. It is frustrating to see the UN in action, as young people expect that policies at the UN level should be less dictated by politics (i.e. we don’t vote for our diplomats), but more on evidence-based policy. Despite the rhetoric of “evidence-based” drug policy, there was little mention of harm reduction despite being International Harm Reduction Day last Thursday. UN member states are tied to their governments in power, so as much as they try to stick to the evidence, they’re limited as to what they can say on behalf of whatever government is in power at the time.

Canada is a perfect example of that, as the rhetoric of the Harper Government once again prevailed in their statements albeit diplomatically. While the speech was not too different than CND, there were a few points worth noting. Once again Canada acknowledged the prevalence of New Psychoactive Substances, and the importance of drug monitoring systems to track and produce alerts to the public. While Canada was focused on protecting youth, their strategy of investing millions in Public Service Announcements (which aren’t evidence based) is ironic, especially with such little funding available for youth treatment or harm reduction services. Finally, Canada stressed that legalization and decriminalization efforts underestimated organized crime, once again a statement lacking supportive evidence.

It’s clear that while some progress is being made on the global level, we have a lot of work to do before we get to a frank honest debate based on evidence. One can hope for several scientific panels from the various UN bodies at UNGASS 2016 next spring, including the World Health Organization and UNAIDS whose voices have often been side lined at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna. Despite the tension present, it’s clear that the UN General Assembly in New York is a much more neutral space for debating drug policy then the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna. While it will take a lot of diplomacy to get the UN to reconsider how drugs are controlled on an international level, this is certainly a start in the right direction.