The forthcoming United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs (19-21 April) was intended as an opportunity for the assembled nations to reflect on failures, successes and soaring costs of the drug control regime. Countries in Latin America have long been concerned with mounting homicide rates related to illicit drug markets, the proliferation of urban gangs distributing drugs, and the descent of entire provinces in Mexico or Guatemala into civil war. In Europe, where levels of drug consumption remain persistently stable, the criminalization of large sections of the population is a structural problem. Several US states have sought to resolve the tensions between high demand and black market supply, by simply legalizing the production, distribution and consumption of cannabis, the most popular illicit drug. On the other end of the spectrum, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China and a clutch of other countries are executing rising numbers of drug offenders. Clearly, much has happened since 1998 when the nations last met to declare “a drug free world, we can do it”.

In preparation for this important event, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs met in Vienna 14-22nd of March to draft proposals for the UN General Assembly. According to the request from the General Assembly, they were to be “short, substantive, concise and action – oriented”. It was an opportunity for a detailed examination of the linkages between prohibition, violence and organized crime, the corrosive impact of corruption on many developing countries, to explore new distribution systems and re-visit the question of ‘addiction’. Proposals had also been tabled to ensure that drug control measures were in harmony with treaties safeguarding human rights and to push back against countries applying the death penalty for drug offences.  

Sadly none of this happened. The preamble to the ‘consensus statement’ that emerged from a week of deliberation simply “reaffirms” and “underlines” the three drug control conventions with no admission of flaw, fault or contradiction. CND veterans insist that only via compromise can agreement be reached with all member states. In turn, such consensus is needed because the document recognizes that “the world drug problem remains a common and shared responsibility.”

But why? In the 19th century, China could only control internal opium distribution by reaching an accord with British traders shipping patna and malwa opium in from India. Today, however, import substitution has made most countries self sufficient in cannabis and spawned cottage industries that supply chemical alternatives to natural narcotics and stimulants. Opiate use is contracting and cocaine is being displaced by methamphetamine. The need for a global consensus is clearly an anachronism that owes more to the preferences of international diplomacy than the needs of drug control.

In addition, each member states’ room for manoeuvre is tightly constrained by the Treaties. For a centralized state like the UK, experimentation with Colorado-style cannabis cultivation is strictly out of the question. Time then, for a Conventions-Brexit, possibly alongside countries with kindred values around public health, proportionate punishment and individual liberty. The advantage of fragmenting the current system is to better adjust the mechanisms available to the particular needs of each country. 

In reality, however, the variations between countries in the patterns of use, practices and preferences are buried by the phraseology ringing in the special session on the ‘world drug problem’. What is that exactly? That drugs are too expensive, poor quality and often hard to find? Punishments are draconian? Are we really expected to believe that heroin injectors in the ruins of Kabul face comparable problems to a West London professional on a morphine script? It is fairly well established that we are mainly dealing with complex situations where multiple stressors intersect, as in poverty and marginalization and drugs. Or where individuals with mental conditions compound these by excessive drug use, a condition known as ‘dual diagnosis’. In short, there are many social and medical problems in which drugs are one facet among many.

Attributing primary causality to drugs, however, allows authorities to de-prioritize and distract from more intractable problems. Drugs can provide an alibi for incompetent or exploitative governments and project the blame onto structurally disadvantaged groups. These are valuable benefits to governments everywhere, whose support in turn ensures the enshrinement of the lowest common denominator: ‘the world drug problem’. The laudable pursuit of inclusiveness, results, therefore, in dulling down the analysis of underlying issues.

Having set the stage with the vigorous affirmation of policies that have failed spectacularly in reaching their objectives, the authors set to work with pages of detailed operational recommendations ending with a resolution to: “implement the operational recommendations in  close  partnership  with  the  United  Nations  and  other  intergovernmental organizations and civil society and to share with the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, as the policymaking body  of  the  United  Nations”. The circle that opens in the run-up to the UNGASS, closes with a commitment to the body tasked with the preparations. It is a social system at work, effectively detached from the problematic external reality, to ensure its own continuation and expansion. How this is to be done and who has to be involved is spelt out over a dozen pages, with three net beneficiaries.

We have argued before that drug control presents a social system where the interests of three professional groupings intertwine. The first are policy makers and bureaucrats who can translate the lofty principle of ‘fighting evil’ into governance instruments for consolidating their power. Unsurprisingly, the paper is replete with calls to “strengthen cooperation between UNODC and other UN entities within their respective mandates in their efforts to support Member States in the implementation of international drug control.” To expand the role of the key agencies, the authors take several distinct approaches. First, they call for closer cooperation with and coordination of the UN agencies, which are principally the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the International Narcotics Control Board and the World Health Organisation as a matter of political expediency.  And secondly, they identify concrete tasks in which these agencies provide guidance, technical expertise and support, as centres of excellence. In the process they also insinuate functions for the Commission on Narcotic drugs, the body they belong to themselves, as the locus for assessing future risks, a forum for exchange of good practice and know-how, to end on “reaffirming” its role as “the policymaking body of  the  United  Nations  with  prime  responsibility  for  drug  control  matters”.

To administer the system they have called into being, the bureaucrats lean on two favoured constituencies. Since the purported intent of drug control is the ‘common good’, it is only fitting for the recommendation to lead with demand reduction, prevention and treatment. It is the treatment community, however, who receive special favour. First drug dependence is characterised “as a complex multi-factorial health disorder”, and then national authorities are called upon to develop treatment facilities. Where know-how, political will or wherewithal are missing, international development cooperation can make up the shortfall – mediated of course, by the international agencies. More detail is provided, “including psycho-social, behavioural and medication-assisted treatment” and different population groups highlighted, such as prisoners, young people and women.

Special praise goes to who have arguably been drug control’s biggest beneficiaries of all – law enforcement. They are first in line for a special tribute “to those who have sacrificed their lives” in the fight against the “phenomenon”, and stand to benefit from the re-invigoration of counter measures through: extended crop eradication; improved intelligence and information sharing; better border controls; enhanced forensics; measures against organized criminal groups. New areas of work are opening up in anti money laundering, anti corruption, precursor control and cyber security. Not a line is wasted on the social costs of enforcement, be this the criminalisation of drug users or the environmental damage of crop spraying. Sensitive material may indeed rock the consensus and jeopardise unanimity. 

For students of drug politics this is immensely disappointing, but cynics now argue that reform was never on the cards anyway. A handful of activists apart, no-one at CND is angry. The prevailing sentiment is one of frustration with the process, no concerns over the actual state of drug control and its consequences. For the employees of the organisations closely involved with backstopping, drafting, coordinating and organising, this is the stuff on which careers are built. The diplomats and national experts on the delegations can also look forward to work and travel for the foreseeable future.

When the decision was taken in 2012 to hold a special session on the wicked question of drugs many had hoped for an honest review of costs and failures. The preparatory document cobbled together by the CND is something quite different. It is a fundraiser for the perpetuation and expansion of the existing system. The financial costs of a dysfunctional system exacted from the many to benefit a few. The world drug control problem is set to intensify after UNGASS 2016.

Thumbnail: Flickr CC UNIDO