In this paper, the Transnational Institute explores key lessons from the 1990 Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on Drug Abuse (UNGASS 1990) and the 1998 Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS 1998), and tracks subsequent policy events and trends. It discusses the wide array of increasing tensions and cracks in the "Vienna consensus," as well as systemic challenges and recent treaty breaches. Various options for treaty reform are explored.

Key findings

  • In April 2016, the United Nations (UN) will dedicate, for the third time in its history, a Special Session of the General Assembly (UNGASS) to review the performance of the UN drug control system and provide an opportunity for improving the UN’s normative guidance and legal and institutional framework.
  • Initiatives taken at UNGASS 1990 to develop a UN system-wide coherent drug policy failed dramatically over the following decade.
  • UNGASS 1998 supported the quixotic goal of a drug-free world by setting 2008 as the target to "eliminate or significantly reduce" the global illicit drugs market.
  • Rather than admitting that progress toward the target had not been made, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has promoted a "containment" hypothesis, claiming the "undeniable success" of a century of international drug control.
  • Present divides in global drug policy preclude any significant progress on a new UNGASS political declaration through consensus-driven negotiations.
  • Controversial issues like cannabis regulation and treaty reform are unlikely to appear prominently on the UNGASS 2016 agenda.
  • Legal arguments denying conflict between cannabis regulation and the strictures of the UN conventions are counterproductive.
  • By stretching the treaty-flexibility approach beyond the legally defensible, the United States is reverting to selective adherence to international law based on political expedience.

This paper is part of the project Improving global drug policy: Comparative perspectives and UNGASS 2016 by the Brookings Institute.

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