By Dave Bewley-Taylor

The 63rd session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND or Commission) took place in Vienna between 4 and 6 March 2020. Incredible as it now seems, held during the early phases of the current global health pandemic, only the precautionary absence of a few full delegations and warnings regarding healthcare counter measures made it feel any different from previous ‘normal’ sessions. Indeed, since this year’s meeting followed on from the Commission’s 2019 Ministerial Segment and multilateral agreement on the associated Ministerial Declaration expectations were relatively low. Indicative of this was the tabling of only five resolutions, around half the number seen in previous years. Nonetheless, as has been increasingly the case the twin issues of complexity and tension were identifiable throughout the week. Put simply, with intricacy, fluidity and dynamism continuing to characterize illicit drug markets has come growing variations in national policy approaches designed to deal with them and attendant inter-state and state-UN system tensions at the international level. 

Implicit and explicit manifestations of this reality were evident from the opening session. For example, the CND Chair, Ambassador Mansoor Ahmed Khan, spoke of the ‘need to understand each other’s perspective’. While the new UNODC Executive Director, Ms. Ghada Fathi Waly, deliberately highlighted the mythical ‘Vienna spirit of consensus’; something she evidently found ‘quite inspiring’ upon arrival in the Austrian capital. Yet, amidst some welcome areas of agreement, including notably access to controlled substances for medical use, the revised Annual Report Questionnaire and – at a rhetorical level at least – support for the Sustainable Development Goals, increasing divergence was impossible to hide. Within the General Debate some countries still chose to deploy the language of a ‘drug free world’ while others were more pragmatic in their support for drug policies genuinely underpinned by a human rights and public health-based approach. Indeed, while not unique to Vienna, interpretative variation around the concept of human rights remains. 

This could be seen both within the Plenary and the Committee of the Whole (CoW), where resolutions are negotiated, in relation to differing views on the Chief Executive Board’s 2018 UN System Common Position on Drug Policy and the work of the associated UN System Coordination Task Team. While not alone, the Russian Federation was arguably most vocal and active in opposing supportive references to this new initiative to improve system-wide coherence, including in relation to cooperation with human rights bodies and better data collection and analysis. And maintaining its role as the most vociferous supporter of the shape of the extant control system, the Russian Federation was also especially active in challenging the recommendations of the WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) regarding cannabis classification; an issue that played out at various points across the session and due to the hard fought second postponement of a vote by Commission members has taken on the mantle of an almost ‘too hot to handle’ issue. Although largely overshadowed by the debates around the ECDD’s recommendations, tensions around legally regulated markets for non-medical adult use also remained, with the INCB legitimately flagging it up as an ongoing issue of concern. This is particularly so considering declared and potential legislative shifts in Luxembourg and New Zealand respectively.

With engagement spanning a range of issue areas, civil society was once again highly visible and active at this year’s CND. As members of country delegations as well as NGO delegations in their own right, representatives were involved in the organisation of side events, often in collaboration with member states and UN agencies, and delivered several statements within the plenary. Beyond this, the now formalized ‘informal dialogues’ with UN bodies continued. Although she was unfortunately unable to attend due to illness, these included Executive summary 2 The 2020 CND Report of Proceedings dialogues with the UNODC Executive Director, the INCB President – and for the first time – representatives of the WHO. 

While any assessment of the outcomes of the 63rd session must now be re-framed within the context of COVID-19, it is fair to conclude that, with the inescapable sands of divergence within its gears, the CND’s consensus driven machinery continues to grind away, but in an increasingly laboured and shuddering fashion. It is true that this year, as at recent sessions, the system has been able to tolerate divergence in high-level views on the quest for a ‘drug free world’ versus a preference for harm reduction and market management approaches, and even to a certain extent endure diverging views on some aspects of human rights. But, as events in March revealed, increasing endeavour is now required to keep the wheels turning as intended.

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