I fully expected the 56th Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) to be as depressing as others that I have attended in recent years. With so many organizations in the world working to change drug policies and refocus attention on the harms that arise from global drug policies on individuals, families, communities and countries, attending the CND is often a reality check on the slow, sometimes microscopic pace of change in this international forum on drug policies.  

As the meeting commenced it became clear that there was something different in the air this year. For one the usual buzz around the presence of the US Drug Czar was strangely missing from the proceedings – his travel budget a victim of sequestration cuts, Gil Kerlikowski stayed home this year. Not a bad one to miss given the torturous task his staff might have had writing speaking notes to explain the recent situation in Colorado and Washington where voters passed resolutions to bring into existence a legal regulatory regime for adult non-medical use of cannabis.

Evo Morales, President of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, in his opening address to the Commission thanked the delegates for allowing Bolivia to re-join the conventions with a reservation that addressed Bolivia’s constitution, which upholds the use of the coca leaf as a part of Bolivia’s cultural heritage. President Morales went on to ask whether there was tension in the room and he wondered if it was related to the knowledge that “the fight against drugs has failed globally”. He went on to chastise the US for trying to force Bolivia to curb its coca farming with threats and by tying eradication of coca to the building of schools in the 1980s. Morales’ words were strong in that he pointedly noted that efforts to control drug trafficking are intertwined with other geopolitical goals of “mastery” and “dominance”. Such bold statements are rare in the public forum at CND.  

UNODC Director, Yury Fedotov’s opening remarks were an interesting mix of the old and the new. While asserting that progress is being made on the global drug problem Fedotov acknowledged that international drug control policy cannot remain isolated from needed improvements in HIV services nor can it ignore discrimination and the lack of evidence-based services for people who use drugs. During the civil society session with the UNODC, Fedotov was animated and seemed to welcome the openness of the debate at this session where a number of questions focusing on drug policy reform surfaced.

Another fresh breath of air in this year’s event was New Zealand’s Minister of Revenue, Peter Dunne who addressed the Commission and explained the new and innovative legislation that will be coming before the New Zealand parliament in the fall that will address the many new psychoactive substances that are appearing almost daily that are unscheduled within the treaties. Under the proposed legislation, the Psychoactive Substances Bill, all of these new substances will be banned unless a manufacturer can prove that they pose no more than a low risk of harm. Rather than ban all new substances immediately the New Zealand government plan to put the onus on the industry to ensure the safety of their products and if they pass muster they will be placed in a regulatory schedule that will allow retail sales of the products under certain conditions.  When asked how this scheme was received by other delegations Minister Dunn said there was a great deal of interest in the proposed legislation and countries are watching closely to see the outcomes.  

The Organization of American States review of drug policy in the western hemisphere that was mandated by the last Summit of the Americas in April 2012 was also a topic of interest as expectations begin to mount now that the review is coming to conclusion in the next couple of months.  

This year saw a record number of NGOs attending the CND and this brought a fresh energy to the proceedings. The International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) had a strong presence and provided briefings on the CND, key resolutions coming forward, and the many side events that were on the schedule. IDPC organized several excellent side events in partnership with country delegations or other NGOs that covered critical issues related to the International Conventions and the current state of dialogue and debate on global drug policies. The side events were very well attended drawing a wide cross section of people from country delegations as well as the NGO community.

All in all this years CND had some interesting moments if you read the tea leaves and listened to the buzz in the corridors. My take is that there is an implicit if not explicit recognition that the drug policy landscape is indeed changing, new approaches are being considered, and countries are beginning to demand a wider debate on policy. For the CND to remain relevant these debates should be welcomed as an important opportunity at future meetings of the Commission.

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