For decades the United States, the primary architect of international drug control policy, led the global fight against illicit drugs, exercising its influence through the Vienna-based Commission on Narcotic Drugs, a governing body that provides guidance to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, or UNODC, through a process involving discussion and resolutions. As the domestic approach to drug policy in the US began to change, so did its role at the Commission, or CND. Russia took on the role of the protector of drug control efforts and has wielded significant power and influence, advocating drug policies that prioritize repression, criminalization and punitive enforcement — a reflection of its approach at home.
Recently, however, Russia’s grip on UN Vienna agencies has weakened.
A year ago, during the 65th session of the CND, the European Union, Japan and numerous countries in Africa and Latin America condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and diminished its outsized voice, signaling a departure from agreeing with the dominant voice, through debates and resolutions in a process known as the Vienna consensus. Last December, the UN General Assembly passed a historic annual drugs-related “omnibus” resolution that provided a framing for a way forward, using strong language to assert the human rights of communities impacted by drug use or drug economies.
The passing of this resolution is a sign that the tide is turning toward a more progressive approach internationally, allowing voices for progress to take a lead at the UN. The increasing number of countries considering legalizing cannabis for adult recreational use is just one example of this shift.
Critics of the criminal justice-dependent way of addressing drugs say it’s time for the UN to modernize drug policy by prioritizing human rights, public health and sustainable development. The goal of achieving a society free of drugs — articulated during the first UN General Assembly on Drugs, in 1998 — has led to unimaginable harm across the world, resulting in devastating waves of mass incarceration, overdose deaths from a toxic drug supply, HIV epidemics among people who use drugs, criminalization of poor rural growers in the Global South, extrajudicial killings and a plethora of human-rights violations that have impacted vulnerable groups in every corner of the globe.
As the New York Times editorial board recently argued, we need to shift course on drug policy because we’re losing the war: Drug use is soaring and more people are dying of overdoses than at any point in modern history. An end to criminalization and an approach centered on public health is critical. Evidence, some of it gathered by the UN, reveals that criminalized communities are less likely to seek treatment when they need it.
According to data published by the UNODC, there was no reduction globally in the cultivation of opium, coca and cannabis from 2009 to 2018, and no reduction of the market for illicit drugs, which the UNODC described as “thriving.” Put another way, the drug war status quo, so fervently defended by Russia, has not achieved its aim while creating immense suffering.
Hope for reform may be sitting outside of Vienna. The latest statement by Volker Turk, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, highlights the need for “advancing human rights at all levels of drug policy debates,” with a focus on human dignity, health and economic and social rights.
Colombia and Bolivia recently said they would jointly ask the UN to remove the coca leaf from its narcotics list, a step toward recognizing its cultural role and indigenous use. The proposal, which the two countries are expected to make at the CND’s session in Vienna this week, will be partly to de-stigmatize drugs in conversation, moving from the historic criminal justice approach that previously dominated these proceedings. Indeed, Colombian President Gustavo Petro has indicated his willingness to lead, stating in his inaugural address, “It is time for a new international convention that accepts that the war on drugs has failed — and failed resoundingly.”
He continued, “So they must change the anti-drug policy that is in their hands — in world powers, in the United Nations.”
It is time to seize this opportunity and pursue a fresh approach based on evidence, one in which human rights, public health and sustainable development, not criminalization, lie at the center of the world’s response to drugs.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts on global drug policies promoted by the UN?
Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, Ph.D., directs the Open Society Foundation’s Drug Policy Program.
I’m shocked at the implication that Russia is to blame for the ‘war on drugs’, which is not to agree with Russian policy. A very disappointing piece of writing.