Almost two years after the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS), the implications of the resultant Outcome Document remain unclear, and complex. At a structural level, it can legitimately be regarded as a homeostatic text that does much to help prop up the increasingly creaky UN international drug control framework. Yet, as member states move to operationalize its key provisions, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the Document has in fact generated considerable concern among what might be called status quo countries seeking to preserve the treaty system in its current form.

One need only look at the debates and country statements within the UN’s central policy making body on the drugs issue, the Vienna based Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND or Commission) for evidence to support this view. That prohibition oriented states like the Russian Federation are investing considerable effort and political capital to argue that the Outcome Document does not supplant previous soft law instruments, particularly the 2009 Political Declaration and Plan of Action, suggests that the progressive character of the Document exceeds what might have been initially thought as the dust settled in April 2016.

Although problematic in many respects, the 2016 instrument does to a certain degree move away from the Declaration’s simplistic goal for states to ‘eliminate or reduce significantly and measurably’ illicit drug supply and demand, the diversion and trafficking of precursors and money laundering.’ This, it should be recalled, was agreed nearly ten years ago with a target date of 2019. Indeed, while the operationalization of many aspects of the Document merit ongoing scrutiny, key among them is how the international community refines its measurement of what has become known simply and somewhat vaguely as the ‘world drug problem’. This is especially so as we approach what has now been agreed to be a high-level ministerial segment of the CND in March 2019 and not only what is likely to be an awkward review of progress made against the targets within the Political Declaration, but also negotiations regarding how the Commission approaches international drug control in the decade up to 2029.

Beginning with an overview of the Annual Report Questionnaire (ARQ), the key mechanism by which the UN system collects data on various facets of the state of the world’s illicit drug market, this Working Paper examines the content of the UNGASS Outcome Document in terms of its reference to indicators and some of the problems surrounding the current framework. It then goes on to discuss the increasing attention given to the ARQ within Vienna since the UNGASS before concluding with a critique of the process leading to the meeting of an ‘Expert Group’ to revise the ARQ. With the Group scheduled to meet in late January 2018, there are growing expectations that the revision process will seize the opportunity to move the Questionnaire mechanism beyond traditional indicators.