By the end of the UN General Assembly Special Session on the world drug problem (UNGASS) in New York last week, it became evident that the global pact on drug control was fraying at the edges. It was the first of its kind to be held in almost two decades, called for by the leaders of Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia to urgently assess the effectiveness of existing prohibitionist and punitive drug policies. In light of the resulting levels of extreme violence, criminalisation and incarceration, among other negative consequences of repressive drug policies, several leaders from around the world including the US called for the consideration of alternative strategies that could work better for human rights, public health and the rule of law.
The resulting UNGASS agreement, adopted at the beginning of the session, acknowledged new priorities such as proportionate sentencing for drug offences, adequate access to controlled medicines, and addressing the specific vulnerabilities of women in detention and engaged in the drug trade. However, the omission of critical issues in the agreement—which became the subject of numerous statements by member states, UN agencies and civil society organisations throughout the UNGASS—revealed the limited and tenuous nature of any global consensus on tackling drugs. These omitted issues were outlined in a joint open letter by UN human rights bodies, and include:
- Use of the death penalty—the inability of governments to agree to its abolition appeared to be the most divisive issue at UNGASS. Immediately after the agreement document was adopted, many countries (from Australia to Germany to Ecuador) began reiterating calls for abolition of the death penalty. In Asia, the Philippines and Mongolia were amongst the only countries opposing the death penalty. Indonesia delivered a statement in defence of retaining the death penalty, on behalf of a coalition comprising China, Singapore, Malaysia, Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, Saudi-Arabia, Oman, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Iran and Sudan.
- Ending the criminalisation, punishment and incarceration of people who use drugs—despite calls from many countries including the US, and all UN authorities (with mandates covering drug control, development, health and human rights), to take a public health response to drug use, thereby removing criminal penalties and/or punishment for both drug use and possession for personal use, countries could not agree on including it in the final agreement. Although countries agreed to encourage the “voluntary participation” of individuals in treatment programmes with “informed consent,” there was no explicit language on ending the detention of people arrested for drug use, a practice that is particularly prevalent in China and Southeast Asia, which has shown to involve torture, forced labour and denial of essential healthcare (as pointed out by the UN in 2012). In re-interpreting human rights as protecting the human rights of families and children, but implicitly not the human rights of people who use drugs or engaged in drug supply, China and Singapore appeared to be seeking to justify such tough, punitive responses along with the death penalty. Malaysia spoke on behalf of ASEAN countries at the UNGASS, outlining positions similar to that of Singapore and reiterating the vision for a drug-free region.
- Harm reduction—despite explicit acknowledgement of the term “harm reduction” by the General Assembly from at least 2001, and reams of scientific evidence on the effectiveness and cost-effective of approaches that aim to reduce the harms associated with drug use (see UNAIDS’ contribution to UNGASS, for example), its inclusion was not agreed. While the inclusion of HIV-related harm reduction interventions represents some progress from previous international agreements on drug control, it remains far too limited—particularly given the need for harm reduction approaches to multiple forms of drug use, including non-injecting use of methamphetamine for which this region represents one of the biggest markets in the world. Part of the reason for its controversy can be attributed to confusion, as displayed by Singapore when its Minister of Law inaccurately described harm reduction as “effectively legalisation” and “feeding people drugs.” On the contrary, harm reduction is about minimising the risks relating to drug use, including overdose, illnesses and infections—it is a pragmatic acknowledgment that there will always be people who use drugs, and that the ultimate objective of drug control policies should be to save lives.
Lastly, despite a growing number of jurisdictions establishing legally regulated markets for cannabis, including the two US states Colorado and Washington, Uruguay and Canada planning to do so in 2017, in violation of the international drug treaties (which only permit the use of drugs for medical and scientific but not recreational purposes), the UNGASS agreement made no reference to it. However, some countries including Colombia, Uruguay, Canada and New Zealand spoke in favour of the need to consider regulation as a legitimate policy option, in order to take control of drug markets from criminal networks, while a few others including Singapore and China made strong statements in opposition.
The UNGASS last week revealed the willingness of some countries to admit the failure and negative consequences of the ‘war on drugs’ approach to drug policy, and to move forward to explore alternatives for the sake of the health, human rights, security and development of communities. It was primarily countries in this region who appeared unable to confront the realities of steadily growing drug markets, and to contemplate a rational approach to drugs that would cause less harm to individuals and societies. As the goal for a drug-free ASEAN by 2015 lapsed and Southeast Asia turns to consider a new drug strategy for the region, there is even more of a need for governments to avoid resorting to delusional rhetoric and hysteria, in order to deliver policies that improve the health and welfare of their people.
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