UN Fails to Solve 'World Drug Problem' at UNGASS

By Jeremy Galloway 04/27/16

While the UN Special Session failed to make significant progress, global partners and activists outside of the event laid groundwork for positive change and offered real hope.

Artwork by Michael D’Antuono

The time to reform draconian drug policies in the US and many other countries is long overdue. The War on Drugs destroys lives, devastates families and communities, and fuels mass incarceration and militarized police forces. People impacted by these policies can’t afford to wait for the sluggish pace of government policy reforms.

The United Nations General Assembly Special Session on “the World Drug Problem” met last week in New York. Drug policy reform advocates had high hopes for the meeting, but those were quickly dashed as it became apparent the voices that need to be heard most continue to be ignored. Almost nothing of substance was accomplished by the UN’s first session on drug policy in nearly two decades.

Blowing Hot Air: Inside UNGASS

The UN sent a clear message from the start that they had little interest in hearing from directly-impacted people and reform advocates. Security confiscated letters signed by over 1,000 celebrities and world leaders urging an end to the War on Drugs as attendees entered the building. 

The first day saw a focus on the death penalty. In a world where countries like Indonesia and Saudi Arabia punish drug use with execution, where the US packs prisons with substance users and low level drug sellers, and where countries like Portugal and Uruguay have decriminalized most drugs in favor of public health approaches, finding common ground is difficult.

The UN has long taken a stand against the death penalty, but that’s had little real-world impact. The US still executes dozens of people per year and incarcerates more than any other nation. Since the early 1900s the US has attempted to dictate the terms of global drug policy, which escalated dramatically after Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs” in 1971. With the US controlling this conversation, efforts to reach consensus on ending the death penalty or more compassionate drug policies are doomed before they begin.

On day two the Russian Federation sponsored a session on how to address the global heroin problem. Despite a panel of medical experts and scientists promoting evidence-based solutions, a Russian representative tossed their opinions aside, promoting a failed “cold turkey” approach. Even the US federal narcotics farm, founded in 1935, was more progressive and compassionate. That Russia, which forbids methadone treatment and promotes a multi-national ban on methadone, sponsored this session reveals UNGASS was flawed from the start. 

More Accomplished Outside than Inside UN

asha bandele of the Drug Policy Alliance called for a gathering of global partners to stage protests outside UNGASS. They also hosted a series of discussion panels and workshops. 

The pop-up Museum of Drug Policy was a huge hit. It put the violence and cruelty of the War on Drugs and its global impact into perspective. The museum included art exhibits, a life-like replica of a solitary confinement cell, and a hall filled with letters and artwork from incarcerated people detailing their lived experiences as victims of the drug war.

One image was particularly moving: a black slave in chains, his back scarred, facing a modern-day black prisoner in handcuffs beneath the word “Progress?” This, and many of the discussion panels, opened up critical discussions about race and the drug war, something largely absent inside UNGASS. Pastor Kenneth Glasgow of The Ordinary People Society, based in Alabama, said, “You can’t talk about the drug war without race. It’s like talking about peanut butter without jelly.”

The museum hosted poetry, live performances, songs, and speeches by Shannon, Liza Jessie P, Kelly Tsai, OVEOUS, John Legend, and Russell Simmons. “The War on Drugs has been, globally, a disaster,” Simmons said. The museum also hosted discussion panels co-sponsored by Stop the Harm and Open Society Foundation on new approaches to drug policy, intersections of faith and drug policy, global drug policy issues, and perspectives on harm reduction, featuring Melissa Harris-Perry of MSNBC and Dr. Carl Hart.

Columbia University, where Dr. Hart teaches, hosted its own series of discussions, including a multinational panel on perspectives pointing to connections between the US South and the Global South. A European panelist who revealed that she thought the US was “the land of freedom” said the discussion opened her eyes. 

Outside the UN, 200 young people staged a protest sponsored by Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). The Caravan for Peace, Life, and Justice, which made its way through Latin America and kicked off a five-city US tour starting in Atlanta and ending at UNGASS, participated in an event with Moms United to End the War on Drugs. Events like this highlight the impact on families and the global effects of US drug policy, especially in Latin America.

Poet Shannon reads a poem about her brother at the pop-up Museum of Drug Policy outside of UNGASS. Photo via Stop The Harm.

SSDP and Families for Sensible Drug Policy co-hosted a workshop where family members, advocates, students, and young people engaged in an intergenerational discussion on how each group is impacted by the drug war and developed strategies for collaborating to achieve mutual goals. This is significant as the role of families has traditionally been left out of discussions on policy reform.

Attendees report that these discussions have equipped them with new ideas and tools to bring back to their communities to effectively address the impacts of the War on Drugs locally. The UN and its member states seem to have little interest in pushing forward with progressive, person-centered, harm-reduction policies, preferring to prioritize incarceration and punishment over public health and treatment, which threatens to make the institution irrelevant.

Real change is pushed from below. States respond only under pressure from directly-impacted people and grassroots organizers. Without that, UNGASS wouldn’t have even happened. And while UNGASS was a letdown, what happened outside planted seeds for meaningful change.

UNGASS Confirms Irrelevance of Top-Down Approaches

Former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo has said, “Health-based approaches to drug policy prove much less expensive and more effective than criminalization and incarceration.” That message was lost entirely on UNGASS.

The South African Health News Service sums up the three-day event nicely: 

“Many argue that the best way to take the wind out of the drug barons’ sails would be to decriminalise drugs and regulate their use. But Russia, China, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia still favour a hardline approach that has yielded very little but misery, and UNGASS yielded to their influence this week by adopting a vague statement that offers little that is new.”

The UN blew an opportunity to become a relevant voice for policy reform. UNGASS produced mostly meaningless platitudes and vague calls for changes to only the harshest drug policies and the death penalty. It offered few solutions and lost credibility by allowing prohibitionists to set the tone, while people in Mexico, El Salvador, Colombia, Venezuela, and elsewhere cry out for compassion and relief.

UN Office on Drugs and Crime director Yury Fedotov praised the final summary statement, saying: “This [special session on the world drug problem] UNGASS has provided a critical opportunity, at a critical moment, to build a more comprehensive and collective understanding of the challenges we face.”

But by failing to distinguish between substance use and harmful substance use, continuing to focus on supply control, and neglecting mental health and systemic issues that drive harmful substance use, the UN's efforts are counterproductive. Shaun Shelly of South Africa’s Step Up Project pointed out the apparent inability of the UN session to create real or lasting change, saying, “We need to address inequality and economic disparity. These are our real enemy, and they’re far more difficult to target than drugs. It will take real political will and investment to address these issues.” 

Leaders who only see harmful effects of harsh drug policies from the outside might find value in building “an understanding” of the challenges we face. Advocates and directly-impacted people already understand. Life-saving measures like naloxone access, medical amnesty laws, syringe exchange programs, safe injecting facilities, and harm reduction services for drug users and sex workers are driven by regular people putting in tireless effort and risking incarceration themselves. 

In a post-UNGASS world, the War on Drugs continues. And it’s people on the ground, not the UN or its member states, who are left to clean up the mess.

Jeremy is Harm Reduction Coordinator at Families for Sensible Drug Policy, Program Director at Southeast Harm Reduction Project, co-founder of Georgia Overdose Prevention, and a state-certified peer recovery specialist. He lives in North Georgia with his wife and three cats. He writes and speaks regionally about drug policy reform, harm reduction, and the importance of including voices of directly-impacted people in policy decisions.

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Jeremy Galloway is a co-founder of Georgia Overdose Prevention, Harm Reduction Coordinator with Families for Sensible Drug Policy, and advocates for the rights of people who actively or formerly used drugs and those impacted by drug criminalization. He's part of a network of advocates, academics, and public health officials from across the South working to combat the recent wave of overdoses and opioid-related problems in the the region. You can find Jeremy on Linkedin and Twitter.