The 65th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs: Report of proceedings


The 65th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs: Report of proceedings

26 July 2022

The historical significance of the 65th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND or Commission) was determined by the 2022 Russian attack on Ukraine, which began scarcely three weeks before the session started. The Russian aggression brought an extraordinary degree of tension to the functioning of the Commission, and this resulted in the rupture of several norms that are central to the consensus-based approach to policy-making that has characterised the CND for decades – the so-called ‘Vienna spirit’.

Reacting to Russia’s attack on Ukraine, a sizeable and coordinated group of like-minded countries came to the session with the conviction that, this year, ‘business as usual’ was not possible. They condemned the Russian aggression in dozens of statements throughout CND, sometimes drawing attention to the devastating impact of the war on people who use drugs and drug services in Ukraine – an important departure from the norm that prevents countries from making critical comments on another state at the CND. A second rupture of the CND traditions came about when two countries – Latvia and Russia – presented competing candidates to represent the Easter European Group of countries to the Board of the Standing open-ended intergovernmental working group on improving the governance and financial situation of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (FINGOV), thus triggering the first recorded vote in the modern history of the CND – votes that Russia lost by a broad margin – and thereby breaking the ‘Vienna consensus’.

Reactions to the invasion of Ukraine also had a decisive impact on the resolutions negotiated at the Committee of the Whole (CoW). Due to opposition from many countries, Russia was forced to postpone its proposal for a resolution on the use of information technologies for illegal drug-related activities; at the same time, Australia withdrew its resolution on the safe disposal of toxic substances, likely due to unwillingness to negotiate with Russia on the draft text. However, the Commission finally adopted four resolutions on topics such as alternative development (with a focus on environmental protection), the connection between the trafficking of drugs and that of illegal firearms trafficking, the diversion of non-scheduled chemicals, and early drug prevention.

In addition to the geopolitical disruption, the ‘Vienna spirit’ was also put under pressure as CND delegates faced important substantive disagreements concerning drug policies themselves. The most notable debates concerned the legal regulation of drugs for non-medical use – with Russia taking a leading role in denouncing countries that have moved to regulate cannabis – and the role of human rights and human rights experts within drug policy debates. A key point of tension was the intervention of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which was finally able to present its watershed study on drug policy and arbitrary detention, but faced substantial opposition by a small but vocal group of Member States during their exchange with delegates. UN agencies were also divided on the issue of human rights, with the Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) standing alone in failing to call for the alignment of drug policies with human rights, in contrast with her counterparts at UNAIDS and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Although the Commission was held in a hybrid format due to COVID-19-related restrictions for second year in a row, civil society participation remained very robust, with 23 statements delivered at the plenary, over 60 side events led by NGOs, and the participation of many civil society representatives in the Informal Dialogues with the CND Chair, the UNODC Executive Director, and WHO representatives.

As has happened in previous years, civil society contributions to the debate were amongst the most substantive, focusing on critical issues such as the human rights violations brought about by drug control, the impact of drug policies on oppressed communities, or the implications of legally regulated cannabis markets for non-medical use.

In spite of the geopolitical turmoil and the growing fracture between different approaches to drugs, the traditions associated with the ‘Vienna spirit’ remain deeply rooted amongst Member States, and the Commission was able to go through its ordinary agenda and adopt four resolutions. And while it is true that a vote was held for the first time in modern CND history, thus formally breaking the consensus, the vote was driven by a geopolitical struggle extraneous to drug policies themselves, and concerned a procedural matter. In this context, whether the exceptional events of 2022 lead to further fracture in the ‘Vienna spirit’ remains to be seen.

Previous reports in this series: