International drug policy: Is the UN becoming irrelevant?

United Nations


International drug policy: Is the UN becoming irrelevant?

10 April 2018

By Khalid Tinasti,

When the wave of adult marijuana legalization in some states started in 2013, the position of the federal authorities regarding the government’s international obligations to prohibit drugs was based on a flexible interpretation of the United Nations drug conventions, commonly known as the Brownfield doctrine. The legality of this interpretation has been questioned by the U.N. convention-control bodies. But as the U.S. administration grows more suspicious of multilateralism, is the United Nations still equipped, technically and politically, to be heard?

At the U.N. Special Session on drugs (UNGASS) held in 2016, almost every country that spoke in the General Assembly hall emphasized how high drugs were on their national agendas. Yet they all agreed that the 2019 review of the decennial U.N. political declaration and the plan of action on drugs would take the form of simple ministerial meeting at a subsidiary U.N. commission based in Vienna, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND). This can be interpreted as proof that drug policy is not taken as seriously, despite how it impacts people’s lives on the ground.

International drug policy is different from other highly covered topics in the multilateral system for one main reason: no global player or P5 member has any apparent interest in opening a reform discussion, unlike for environmental, HIV or migration policies that benefit from large human, financial and communication resources.

The United States, which initiated the global war on drugs over 50 years ago, finds itself in a situation where its states are legalizing cannabis by ballot or legislative votes in contradiction with the U.N. drug conventions, while the country faces an unprecedented opioid overdose crisis that undermines every belief that prohibition results in effective drug control or is able to act as a deterrent for use.