A World Tired of Drug Prohibition: Impressions at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs

20. mars 2023

16. mars 2023. Drugreporter: A World Tired of Drug Prohibition: Impressions at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, av Pèter Sàrosi.

The Drugreporter team attended this year’s 66th session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), the largest annual global meeting on drug policies. This is a preliminary written report with some personal impressions – the videos are coming soon.    

I used to think about the Commission on Narcotic Drugs as one of the dullest drug policy events of the year. A synod of the Church of Drug Prohibition, meeting annually at its cathedral in Vienna, to reiterate the dogmas of the Holy Drug Conventions, deeming all non-scientific and non-medical use of some pagan drugs illegal and sinful. It was a hostile environment for civil society. But I have to admit that this has been changing – thanks to civil society.

The opening plenary of the CND, the litmus paper of global drug policies, was once a very depressing event where one had the feeling that speeches were created by standardised production. We even joked that we could make a “CND Bullshit Speech Generator”, where you add some keywords and it produces a speech with the usual mantras of “shared responsibility”, “fight this menace”, and “tackle the world drug problem”.

But the opening plenary this year’s 66th session was proof that the so-called Vienna Consensus, the agreement among member states that prohibition is the best way forward, has gone. It has died an agonising death. Instead of reiterating dogmas, many member states were challenging them. Some of the delegates did so with a passion quite unusual at the CND.

The vice-president of Colombia said in her speech that her country is tired of the war on drugs and is seeking new solutions, such as the regulation of cannabis and the coca leaf. The Bolivian delegate condemned what he called “six decades of colonisation of coca leaf”, a “sacred plant” for native people in the Andes region. A minister from Malta announced that his country has created legal access to cannabis for adults last year, with non-profit associations cultivating the plant for shared use.

A few years ago I would call these the “dissenting voices”, but now they are no longer a small, dissenting minority. They have become part of the mainstream. And these voices are now prevalent in regions where before we would only hear about tough-on-drugs policies. For example, we interviewed the Honourable Seth Kwame Acheampong, the Minister of State from Ghana, West-Africa, who explained to us that his country has decided to leave behind the old ways of harsh criminalisation of people who use drugs, and will provide access to harm reduction programs instead.

Of course there are still those countries that stay loyal to the dogmas of drug prohibition, and unfortunately the majority of the world’s population still lives in those countries. China and Iran, for example. And of course Russia, a country that is more isolated than ever at the UN, because of its aggression against Ukraine. The EU and civil society used the CND as a platform to protest against Putin’s war, with several member states condemning it for its intervention. The Eurasian Harm Reduction Association (EHRA) organised a side event on the war in Ukraine, and its effects on harm reduction services, in a room packed with delegates.  

We could hear some drug warrior sabre-rattling from countries like Singapore, that highlighted a case of a man who took LSD and killed his mother and grandmother under the influence. This reminded me of the infamous Victor Licata case in the US in the 30s, used by Harry Anslinger, the US drug czar, to demonise cannabis. Of course in both cases, psychoactive substance use was only a catalyst of pre-existing mental health problems. To use these extremely rare crimes to prove that these drugs are dangerous is an extreme form of rabble-rousing.

In the Rotunda of the Vienna International Center mostly prohibitionist countries exhibited the achievements of their law enforcement agencies with vivid images and videos. For example, Iran presented pictures of law enforcement officials who died in action and claimed “They have sacrificed their lives for humankind”. This was in stark contrast with the ongoing demonstration in front of the VIC by Iranian activists, who presented the photos of young people (including children) killed by the Iranian regime.

The Indonesian delegation chose a bizarre slogan for its booth this year: “Speed up efforts to counter drug trafficking and never let up on community empowerment towards a drug-free Indonesia”. Probably they tried to mix the old-fashioned prohibitionist message with some progressive truism. The result was… well, bizarre.

The director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Egyptian Ghada Fathi Waly made a flexible speech, trying to give both sides something – but not enough to label her either progressive or conservative. For example, she called for greater access to HIV-prevention services for people who inject drugs but she did not utter the phrase “harm reduction”, an expression which angers prohibitionists. She emphasised that compassion must be at the centre of drug policies – a phrase I could not interpret as anything other than sanctimonious, considering that millions of people are killed, imprisoned, and tortured in the name of drug control every year.

It was not surprising that the watchdog of the international drug control system, the head of the International Narcotic Control Board (INCB), condemned countries that made cannabis legal at the opening. It has been the case for several years now. What was more surprising is that she condemned countries that violate human rights in the name of drug control – something they have not done before. Another sign of changing narratives at the UN.      

One of the highlights of this year’s CND was the intervention of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. His appearance was a welcome change in this law enforcement dominated scene. His call for ending the war on drugs is a significant catalyst for change.

But what really makes the CND more interesting and lively these days are the side events, organised mostly by civil society. There were so many parallel sessions that it is impossible to give a comprehensive overview of all – there are reports on the CND blog. But I can highlight a few events I attended.

One remarkable event was the one discussing drug policies in Northern Europe, organised by the Norwegian Foundation for Humane Drug Policies (FHN). It is amazing to see how much change has been taking place in this region of the world, once known for its repressive, abstinence-based approach to drugs. Halldóra Mogensen, a Member of the Icelandic Parliament, Nanna W. Gotfredsen, a Member of the Danish Parliament and member of the legendary Danish Street Lawyers, and Arild Knutsen, the always optimistic community activist from Norway, presented how their countries introduced harm reduction services such as supervised drug consumption sites. Of course there is still lots of stigma and discrimination – old attitudes die slowly – but society is transforming. As we could hear, Sweden is now the only Nordic country that still favours tough-on-drugs policies instead of harm reduction.

Side event on Nordic drug policies

Another interesting side event I attended was about drug checking: harm reduction interventions to identify substances in products sold as drugs in the illicit drug market. The goal: to enable consumers to avoid adulterated, dangerous, potentially toxic substances. Panellists from the Netherlands, Switzerland, the UK, Portugal, and New Zealand presented the results of their drug checking programs. The evidence is clear: drug checking can save lives. Drug checking, once focusing mostly on the rave scene and targeting party-going young people, is changing. Different groups of drug users are reached out to, including cannabis users and more marginalised, older groups of people who use drugs. Drug checking has been introduced at supervised drug consumption sites. New Zealand is the first country in the world to make a legal regulation of drug checking: a model to follow for other countries in the near future. There is a network of drug checking services in Europe to share data and experiences among service providers.

I also attended the side event organised by Morocco on its lessons learnt from its new cannabis regulation policy, introduced a few years ago, to allow legal cultivation and export of cannabis for industrial and medical purposes. Morocco has been the largest cannabis producer since the 18th century, farmers in the rural area of the Rif mountains had a hostile relationship with the central government that tried to eradicate their cannabis fields. The reform is an attempt at a compromise – it will not solve the problem but it is a step in the right direction. A new agency was established to control cannabis production and export, trying to keep it strictly within the parameters of the international drug treaties. Morocco will not be the country to “boldly go where no man has gone before”, but I suspect that as soon as major European countries create a legal market for recreational cannabis, these mechanisms will be used to supply this market with cannabis.

Apart from attending the CND, we have produced several video interviews with some government and NGO delegates about cutting edge drug policy reforms. Our videos are coming soon! 

For a comprehensive picture of this year’s CND, please visit the Live CND Blog, written by civil society activists!  

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