By The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime

As the UN moves ahead with the next decade of drug policy, combating drug trafficking will remain high on the international agenda. While states largely still agree to address this challenge together, the world around them is changing and the risk is that they will stick to the same old ways of doing business. This UN International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, commonly known as World Drug Day, we ask whether the international community has learnt anything from the last 10 years of flawed drug-policy responses.

In March 2019, the UN rubber-stamped the next 10 years of international drug policy at the Ministerial Segment on drug policy at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna. Although it is technically a consensus document, the short ministerial declaration agreed upon by states sanctions a way forward that is likely to produce a number of outcomes around the world. Responses will become more divergent as regions and countries (as well as cities and provinces) take their own different approaches to drug markets.

While 2019 was significant as the 10-year target date of the 2009 Political Declaration and Plan of Action on countering the world drug problem, its policymaking significance became somewhat overshadowed by the 2016 UN General Assembly special session on the world drug problem (UNGASS 2016). Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia had asked for the 2019 high-level meeting to be brought forward to 2016 owing to the urgency of drug-related issues in Latin America, and the session produced an outcome document with policy guidance on wide-ranging problems.

As a result, the recent 2019 meeting lost some of its clout as a policymaking moment, but some steam was also lost due to gridlock over where drug policy should go. In 2016, the UNGASS outcome document was hailed by many as a stepping stone towards a more comprehensive perspective on drug policy – one that encompasses human rights, public health and development. Not soon after its adoption, a number of states that prefer the status quo began to lobby against this wider policy focus. This forced governments to seek out where they have common ground in 2019 and resulted in a brief ministerial statement that encourages the implementation of all recommendations from 2009 onwards with a tacit understanding that states and groups of states will choose their own directions going forward.

In the next 10 years, then, observers will see states employing diverse responses and policies domestically, bilaterally and internationally (take, for instance, Canada’s stated commitment to stop the illegal movement of its legal cannabis products across borders). Playing by the rules of the international system while operating outside of it, or reforming it, makes for complicated policy choices, and favours deference to the old ways of doing business, because decades of policy and the UN treaties point this way.