With Russia’s grip on UN Vienna weakening, a different debate on drug policies is possible

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With Russia’s grip on UN Vienna weakening, a different debate on drug policies is possible

5 April 2023
Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch

For decades the United States, the primary architect of international drug control policy, led the global fight against illicit drugs, exercising its influence through the Vienna-based Commission on Narcotic Drugs, a governing body that provides guidance to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, or UNODC, through a process involving discussion and resolutions. As the domestic approach to drug policy in the US began to change, so did its role at the Commission, or CND. Russia took on the role of the protector of drug control efforts and has wielded significant power and influence, advocating drug policies that prioritize repression, criminalization and punitive enforcement — a reflection of its approach at home. Recently, however, Russia’s grip on UN Vienna agencies has weakened.

A year ago, during the 65th session of the CND, the European Union, Japan and numerous countries in Africa and Latin America condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and diminished its outsized voice, signaling a departure from agreeing with the dominant voice, through debates and resolutions in a process known as the Vienna consensus. Last December, the UN General Assembly passed a historic annual drugs-related “omnibus” resolution that provided a framing for a way forward, using strong language to assert the human rights of communities impacted by drug use or drug economies.

The passing of this resolution is a sign that the tide is turning toward a more progressive approach internationally, allowing voices for progress to take a lead at the UN. The increasing number of countries considering legalizing cannabis for adult recreational use is just one example of this shift.