Stuck in the inertia of the past: Report of the 66th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs


Stuck in the inertia of the past: Report of the 66th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs

31 August 2023

The 2023 session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) was held with significantly more in-person participation than in the past two years, with most COVID-19 restrictions finally being lifted. The 66th session witnessed yet another clear clash between Member States and UN officials attached to the status quo of the global drug control regime – described by the CND Chair, Ambassador Ruiz Blanco of Colombia, as ‘the inertia of the past’ – and a number of countries, human rights experts and civil society which called for transformative change.

Major difficulties in negotiating a very small number of non-controversial resolutions also cast a doubt over the capacity of the consensus based decision-making process used at the CND to steer global drug policy making in the future, particularly as the system prepares for the mid-term review of the 2019 Ministerial Declaration on drugs in 2024. Recent and more substantive resolutions on drugs adopted by the UN General Assembly in New York and the Human Rights Council in Geneva, only add to doubts about the impact of the CND in Vienna.

One the most remarkable developments of the 66th session of the Commission was the volume of the voices daring to interrogate and challenge the drug control regime itself. The clearest of these challenges came from a small number of Member States – Bolivia, Colombia, the Czech Republic, and Mexico – as well as from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, in a historical first appearance at the CND. While each of them focused on a different theme, these actors called for transformation in essential elements of the international drug control regime, including prohibition, the secondary role of human rights in drug policy, the scheduling of substances used by Indigenous Peoples, and consensus-based decision-making itself.

Nevertheless, those supporting the status quo were also strong and well-coordinated. Throughout the five days of the session, at least 14 countries took the floor to express concern over the legal regulation of cannabis and the resulting contravention of the UN drug conventions. These delegations often used the International Narcotic Control Board (INCB)’s Annual Report for 2022 as a springboard, in particular its critical chapter on the legal regulation of cannabis. However, other States criticised the Board for using inaccurate data, and for jumping to conclusions when evidence on the impacts of legal regulation is still insufficient or ambiguous. Countries that have moved to legally regulate cannabis defended their policies on pragmatic grounds, whilst avoiding any reference to conflict with the conventions.

A year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a new set of practices and rules of engagement have settled in, and they are likely to be part of the ‘normal’ CND landscape for the near future. Whilst drug policy has regained the centre stage at the CND, a coalition of countries that actively prioritise opposition to the aggression remains strong and highly motivated in their joint effort to block Russian initiatives at the Commission, including Russian-led resolutions. Therefore, the Russian Federation’s capacity to shape the outcomes of the CND has been dramatically diminished compared to the past, though still influential.

A total of five draft resolutions were submitted to the CND this year – the smallest number in the recent history of the Commission. Arguably the most important text was Resolution 66/1, which laid down the modalities for the 2024 mid-term review of the 2019 Ministerial Declaration. Although the initial draft was largely procedural, negotiations were still arduous, and agreement was only possible after a hastily arranged high-level Ambassadorial meeting just before the start of the CND. Some delegations strongly contested language on civil society participation in the mid-term review, even though that had been part of the processes in 2014 and 2019, and abides by the rules of procedures of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). After heated debates, the contribution of civil society was reflected in Resolution 66/1, while the final text committed States to ‘work in good faith towards adopting a concise, action-oriented document’ to be adopted at the start of the mid-term review next year.

The complex negotiations concerning the modalities resolution anticipated the difficulties that delegations would face in adopting other texts. One of the draft resolutions, a proposal on the use of drones in drug control submitted by Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, was not able to achieve any semblance of consensus and was eventually postponed. The most progressive text, the yearly resolution on alternative development now incorporating positive language on the environment and on Indigenous Peoples, was significantly watered down.

In these protracted debates and negotiations, civil society brought a dose of reality to the CND. After two years of COVID-19-related travel restrictions, civil society organisations came back to the CND stronger and more coordinated than ever before. A total of 135 NGOs registered to attend the session, with more than 570 NGO participants. NGO plenary statements, side events, and informal dialogues brought to light the real impacts of drug policy on the ground, an element that is unfortunately often absent from the Plenary and the Committee of the Whole (CoW), creating space for a meaningful conversation on the implications of drug policies for the health, human rights, and development of communities worldwide.

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