The 64th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND or Commission) took place between 12 and 19 April 2021. The session was conducted as a hybrid meeting in response to COVID-19. Despite this format, many familiar issues and themes remained visible. With much pre-CND attention focusing on the practicalities of the hybrid meeting, expectations were not especially high. The tabling of only five resolutions, none of them seemingly contentious, suggested another quiet year. Commemoration of the 60th and 50th anniversaries of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the Convention on Psychotropic Substances respectively certainly generated more than the usual levels of support for the UN drug control treaties in general. Yet, while agreement on some specific issues could be seen – notably around access to controlled substances for medical purposes – increasingly diverging views were also on view.    

As has been the case in recent years, health and human rights were prominent features of statements and discussions within both the Plenary and the Committee of the Whole (CoW). In both settings, member states’ public rhetoric reflected vastly differing perspectives and domestic realities, including on occasion in relation to the use of the death penalty for drug-related offences. The disconnect between human rights and UN drug policy debates could also be seen in the CND’s Statement – technically a resolution – on the ongoing global health emergency and its impact on the implementation of member states’ joint commitments to address and counter all aspects of the ‘world drug problem’. In this case, while due to both the pandemic and the increasing use of ‘informals’ the dynamics of the negotiations remain unclear, the consensus document missed the opportunity to acknowledge drug law enforcement as one of the key drivers for mass incarceration, arbitrary detention, and human rights violations. Elsewhere in the CoW, debate around the equally fundamental concept of ‘social marginalisation’ resulted in unforeseen, protracted, and at times heated dispute. 

It was in this context, however, that the US delegation demonstrated a significant shift in stance. Indeed, with the Biden-Harris administration having already announced in early April a more health-oriented approach to drug use within the USA, including ‘Enhancing evidence-based harm reduction efforts’, it was fascinating to see how this translated to the international stage. The US commitment to such a recalibrated outlook could certainly also be seen in its historic and explicit backing of harm reduction at the forum. Nonetheless, it remains unclear how the Biden administration’s ‘reformist drug strategy’ will play out in the CND and elsewhere, including within the UN system. As with most aspects of US foreign policy, complexity is rife. And nowhere was this more obvious than in relation to the Task Team in charge of the implementation of the UN System Common Position on drug-related matters. As was the case at the 2020 session, along with the Common Position, the Team emerged as an important, perhaps deepening, point of contention. Though not generating an enormous amount of debate, those statements that did comment on the work of the Task Team revealed not only ongoing divisions within the Commission, but also curious alignments. On this issue, the Russian and US delegations found themselves on the same side in opposing the Team and seeing it as a threat to the Vienna-based agencies.  

Once again Russia was also particularly vocal in its hostility towards any perceived undermining and relaxation of the international drug control system, especially in relation to policy positions on cannabis. The Russian statement in the General Debate raised its own national drug control strategy’s identification of drugs as a national security priority and highlighted that one of its main aims ‘is to prevent any weakening or review of the global drug control regime, including via legalization of drugs’. Several other states also explicitly noted their concern over the legalisation of cannabis. Conversely, while Mexico referred to democratic efforts within the country leading to ‘responsible regulation’, it was only the Jamaican statement that could be seen as a challenge to the existing control framework. These reformist-oriented comments were very much in line with the delegation’s position on medical cannabis and its enthusiasm for the Commission’s rescheduling decision in late 2020. And on this issue, division was also apparent. With support coming from an eclectic mix of states, it was predominantly – though not exclusively – African nations, including perhaps misleadingly the Group of African States, that remained uncomfortable with the decisions; one that passed with the narrowest of margins In December. 

Despite some anxiety among civil society in the lead up to the session, the hybrid format did little to impact engagement. In fact, in many ways, use of the UN’s ‘Interprefy’ web-based platform facilitated greater involvement, raising questions concerning the extent to which some hybrid practices should be continued in future Commission meetings. As such, while virtual, civil society presence remained strong across the week. This was the case in not only the now normalised ‘informal dialogues’ with UN bodies and side events, but also statements within the Plenary.

Previous reports in this series