UNGASS2016: Will Baby Steps Forward Be Enough?



In 2013, Mexico, Guatemala, and Columbia called for a UN General Assembly Special Session because the failed War on Drugs, frankly, has created a huge financial burden on their countries. Essentially, the aggressive actions of the U.S. in policing drug traffic by air and sea has forced drug cartels to transport drugs on land.[1] This has created a corridor of crime– kidnapping, extortion, and gang violence through Latin America and Mexico to the United States. These countries are considered “transit nations” that “produce and consume few drugs,” making them “among the more innocent victims” of the War on Drugs.[2]

Unfortunately, the call by Guatemala and other countries to focus on decriminalization fell largely on a deaf audience at UNGASS2016. There was some increased discussion about focusing more on human rights; however, the majority of countries are still focused on a “dominantly courts-and-cops approach to fighting drugs.”[3] Russia stood out as the leader of a consensus of countries including Singapore and others who stand by a hardline approach to demand reduction through law enforcement. In so-called drug “treatment” programs in many Asian countries, detainees (as opposed to patients) are held in conditions where they are often treated with “sadistic violence—being shocked with electric batons, whipped with twisted electrical wire, beaten, and being chained while standing in the sun.”[4]

On the other side of the coin are the experts who argue in favor of a harm reduction strategy to solve the world’s drug crisis. Harm reductionists see the failure of the War on Drugs as a result of the extreme focus on breaking the supply-demand chain. “This approach has clearly failed as drug production, illicit use and its effects on domestic crime, health problems and drug-related violence have only expanded in recent decades in regions such as Latin America.”[5]

Unfortunately, little actual progress seems to have come out of UNGASS2016 in terms of actual policy change by the UN or its member nations; however, even though the outcome was much less than what could have been, something positive did come from the event. In 2019, the UN’s current world drug strategy will expire.[6] UNGASS2016 shined a bright and unwelcome light on the human rights abuses in Russia, Asia, Indonesia, Tanzania, and other countries. Additionally, the conference highlighted the issue of access to vital pain control medications in countries such as Guatemala, where a person must travel sometimes hundreds of miles to a single office in Guatemala City to get medicine for cancer pain.[7]

Over the coming years, the prohibitionist countries will continue with their law-enforcement based strategy, while reform-minded countries will continue to decriminalize and focus on harm-reduction based strategies. “But ultimately the reformers are likely to have the advantage. Their approach is based in science rather than ideology, and the evidence suggests strongly that they will attain the better public health outcomes.”[8]

[1] Diederick Lohman, “Guatemala’s President: ‘My Country Bears the Scars from the War On Drugs’,” Guardian, January 19, 2013, accessed April 24, 2016,http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jan/19/otto-molina-war-drugs-guatemala.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Diederick Lohman, “A Missed Opportunity to End the War On Drugs,” Rethinking the War on Drugs (blog), Human Rights Watch, April 22, 2016, accessed April 24, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/blog-feed/rethinking-war-drugs#blog-289182.

[4] Richard Pearshouse, “Why Asia’s Drug Detention Centers Need to Be Shuttered,” Rethinking the War on Drugs (blog), Human Rights Watch, April 18, 2016, accessed April 24, 2016, Diederick Lohman, “A Missed Opportunity to End the War On Drugs,” Rethinking the War on Drugs (blog), Human Rights Watch, April 22, 2016, accessed April 24, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/blog-feed/rethinking-war-drugs#blog-289182.

[5] David Scott Matheison, “A New Approach to Drug Policy and Human Rights,” Rethinking the War on Drugs (blog), Human Rights Watch, April 19, 2016, accessed April 24, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/blog-feed/rethinking-war-drugs#blog-289182.

[6] Lohman, “A Missed Opportunity to End the War on Drugs.”

[7] Diederick Lohman, “Guatemala” Where (Legal) Pain Relief is All But Impossible, Rethinking the War on Drugs (blog), Human Rights Watch, April 20, 2016, accessed April 24, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/blog-feed/rethinking-war-drugs#blog-289182.

[8] Lohman, “A Missed Opportunity to End the War on Drugs.”

WHO at UNGASS2016: Focus on Public Health, Not Law Enforcement

Credit: WHO

Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), delivered opening remarks at UNGASS2016 in New York on Tuesday. In her remarks, Dr. Chan encouraged world leaders to view drug abuse and addiction not as a law enforcement issue, but rather, as a public health issue. 

In the view of WHO, drug policies that focus almost exclusively on use of the criminal justice system need to be broadened by embracing a public health approach. A public health approach starts with the science and the evidence. It tells us several things.

Drug use can be prevented. Drug use disorders can be treated. Drug dependence that contributes to crime can be diminished. People with drug dependence can be helped and returned to productive roles in society.

WHO promotes a comprehensive package of interventions to achieve these objectives. The evidence shows they work. — Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO

While Dr. Chan did not specifically mention medical cannabis, she urged the body to proceed with compassion. Many controlled substances serve important roles in medicine as pain medications. Other substances, such as cannabis, need additional access to further medical research. 

WHO is engaged in another dimension of the world drug problem that needs urgent attention.

The international drug control conventions place a dual obligation on governments: to prevent abuse, diversion, and trafficking, but also to ensure the availability of controlled substances for medical and scientific purposes.

Many controlled substances play a critical role in medical care, for the relief of pain, for example, or use in anaesthesia, surgery, and the treatment of mental disorders.

Unfortunately, the obligation to prevent abuse has received far more attention that the obligation to ensure availability for medical care. WHO estimates that 80% of the world’s population lives in countries with zero or very little access to controlled medicines for relieving moderate to severe pain.

After you endorse and begin to implement the outcome document, I urge you to remember the people. And remember their right to treatment and care.

The people with cancer who die in agony for want of pain relief. The people wishing to be free from drugs who get no help from the health or social services.

The people forced into crime or prostitution to pay for their addiction, and what this does to society. And the millions whose injecting drug use adds HIV or hepatitis to their misery.  — Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO

See Dr. Chan’s full remarks at: http://www.who.int/dg/speeches/2016/world-drug-problem/en/

UNGASS2016 Gets Off to Rocky Start

Credit: UNGASS2016

The United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS2016) kicked off today in New York. The UN Human Rights Commission has already issued a scathing critique of the Outcome Document. UN Human Rights believes that the current global war on drugs is ineffective and is overly reliant on criminalization and harsh punishments to create an in-achievable goal of a “drug free world.” Specifically, UN Human Rights objects to the death penalty. UN Human Rights supports affordable access to health care, palliative care, and drug treatment programs, among other options, as alternatives to the current “war on drugs.” 

While we are encouraged by the presence of human rights language and standards throughout the current outcome document, in our opinion, the text fails to sufficiently articulate the binding nature of human rights obligations in the context of international drug control and continues to embrace the harmful concept of a ‘drug-free world.

We are concerned that the current international drug control regime remains excessively punitive.  Most drug control policies at the national level are based on criminalisation, incarceration, and over-investment in law enforcement, which have proven to be serious barriers in the protection and fulfilment of human rights. 

– See more at: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=19833&LangID=E#sthash.NyfNiX7U.dpuf