Michelle Thiessen

This year’s Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) annual conference in Washington, D.C. occurred the weekend before the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs, so some sessions were in preparation for this high-level international drug policy event. One such session was “Road to UNGASS: What you need to know about the special session and why it matters”. The panelists, among them Scott Bernstein, a lawyer that works for Open Society Foundations, and David Borden, founder of StopTheDrugWar.org, provided an excellent overview to prepare us for the week ahead. Bernstein opened his presentation reminding us all that psychotropic substances have been a part of human culture for millennia, while our attempts to control drugs is a more recent development.

International drug control began with the 1912 International Opium Convention. A number of treaties were signed over the following five decades to control coca leaves, cocaine, and cannabis These treaties were then consolidated into the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which strictly prohibits the use of narcotics outside of scientific and medical uses. In 1971, the UN introduced the Convention on Psychotropic Substances in order to control amphetamine-type stimulants as well as psychedelics. The Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances was later signed in 1988 and provided additional legal grounds to target increasing rates of international drug trafficking.

Member states of the United Nations are expected to enforce these three major international drug control conventions, while the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) operates as the watchdog for treaty enforcement. When a member state operates outside of the Conventions (i.e. by regulating cannabis or establishing safe injection sites ), the INCB “names and shames” the country at the international level. The effects of these conventions and the bodies established to oversee their enforcement are felt worldwide. However, the degree to which the treaties are enforced varies from country to country.

The UN General Assembly meets every year and 29 special sessions have occurred in the 61 years since the UN was established. However, only two of these meetings dealt with drugs: first in 1990 and then again in 1998. In 1998, the meeting’s slogan was “A Drug Free World, We Can Do It!”. In retrospect, Bernstein suggested that a more accurate slogan might be “A Drug Free World: We Didn’t Even Come Close” due to the absolute failure of international drug control; drug use and availability has increased worldwide despite the prohibitionist attitude adopted by the UN. The slogan for this year’s UNGASS is “A Better Tomorrow for the World’s Youth”, however to our knowledge Canada is the only country to include a youth representative on their delegation — CSSDP’s Co-Chair Gonzo Nieto.

The outcome document adopted at UNGASS was prepared in Vienna earlier this year at the 59th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs. Unfortunately, the outcome document does not mention of harm reduction, nor does it contain a moratorium on the death penalty for non-violent drug offenses. Despite the UN’s refusal to lead on these issues, some countries are choosing to go forward and operate outside the Conventions. Notably, Canada has announced cannabis legalization in the coming years and continues to expand its supervised injection sites, and some EU countries have implemented heroin maintenance programs.

While we may look to the UN General Assembly for leadership on drug policy issues, the reality is that progressive change will be adopted at the international level once it exists in more and more member states. For this reason, the coming three years will be an important time for civil society groups and others seeking change to work hard to see this change realized on a national level in their respective countries. As Canada is committed to legalizing cannabis, establishing safe injection sites across the country, and espousing harm reduction principles, we are optimistic that ours can be one of the countries that will shape what drug policy will look like in a post-prohibition world.


Michelle will be graduating this summer with a BA Honours psychology degree from the University of British Columbia. Her thesis focused on the association between classic psychedelic use and violence towards oneself and others. She will begin her Master’s in Clinical Psychology in the fall of 2016 where she plans to continue to examine the motivations and outcomes of the recreational and therapeutic use of cannabis and psychedelics. She co-founded the UBC Okanagan CSSDP chapter in 2015 and is currently the chapter Chair. Michelle’s interest in drug policy reform grew from her concern over medical cannabis patient barriers to access and has spread to other therapeutic substances.