Takeaways from the Second Intersessional Meeting of the 61st Commission on Narcotic Drugs

Takeaways from the Second Intersessional Meeting of the 61st Commission on Narcotic Drugs

Today, Panagiotis Sevris and Jessica Steinberg of SSDP Osterreich would like to share some of their key takeaways from the 2nd intersessional CND meeting that took place on June 25th. As the largest international network of young people working to end the War on Drugs, SSDP is responsible for amplifying the youth voice on drug policy issues at the United Nations. Getting students to the UN requires a great deal of time and money, especially for students coming from the Global South. You can help support SSDP’s efforts at the United Nations by making a gift to the International Activities Fund.

On June 25, 2018, the Commission on Narcotics Drugs (CND) reconvened and held its second scheduled intersessional meeting in Vienna. Intersessional meetings are an opportunity for members of the Commission to discuss progress made on the resolutions & discussions that took place during the annual CND meeting in March. Here are some of the things that were discussed at the meeting.

Canada’s National Legalization of Adult-Use Cannabis

One of the most lively parts of the intersessional meeting was a discussion on cannabis legalization in Canada. On June 21, 2018, Canada legalized the cultivation, manufacturing, distribution, and consumption of cannabis for adult use. This domestic policy was met with great tension from the international community. Two formal statements were made on behalf of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Both bodies commented on the violation of international drug control treaties, which “undermines the international legal drug control framework and respect for the rules-based international order.” Prior to the Second Intersessional of the 61st CND, Russia made an official statement commenting on Canada’s legislation breaching international law.

The Permanent Representative of Canada, H.E. Heidi Hulan, began the discussion by making an official statement on behalf of the Canadian government. She stated, “on June 21, Canada’s legislation to legalize, strictly regulate, and restrict access to cannabis received Royal Assent. While the Cannabis Act is now law, it will only take effect on October 17, 2018.” Hulan outlined the regulatory framework in a detailed, transparent, and open manner. She explained the minimum age to purchase, possess, and consume is 18 years old, and that only authorized entities would be able to legally cultivate, produce, distribute, and sell cannabis. Hulan explained that there were eight key “pillars” that formed the base of their legalization policy, two of which deal with restricting youth access to cannabis.

Hulan focused on four specific points that address and justify the Cannabis Act. The first two comments reflect the importance of protecting minors and focusing on public health and safety. First, this Act makes the sale of selling cannabis to a minor a criminal offense with significant penalties for the first time. Second, attention was brought to advertising since there are restrictive rules and regulations on packaging and labeling (e.g. child resistant and tamper evident). The third point is a concern for the international community as any illicit trafficking of cannabis across international borders “will remain a serious criminal offense,” Hulan added. The final point made was another public health concern stating that impaired driving remains a serious criminal offense.

Hulan’s detailed description of the Cannabis Act supports the reasons why Canada passed adult-use legalization of cannabis. Namely, the former prohibitionist approach did not meet the concerns and challenges facing the Canadian public. The government is drawing from their lessons in tobacco laws, which has led to a decrease in tobacco consumption through stricter regulations and better funded educational material. Canada has thus allocated a $100 million for public education, surveillance, and awareness efforts to support health and safety.

This new approach on cannabis legality, Hulan admitted, “recognizes that…[Canada is in] contravention of certain obligations related to cannabis under the UN drug conventions.” She expressed that the decision was taken seriously and that Canada “remains a strong supporter of the international drug control system, as established by the three Conventions.” Canada will continue to work closely with the CND to exchange information, maintain the drug control system, reduce international illicit drug trafficking and support capacity-building mechanisms.

Following the statement, a number of delegations were quick to respond to the debate at the Intersessional. Within the room, the strongest voices were from Russia. Delegations that supported Russia’s view included: Japan, Kyrgyzstan, Singapore, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Syria Arab Republic, Kazakhstan, China, Iran, Vietnam, Egypt, Belarus, Algeria, Malaysia, Namibia, and Armenia. In almost every statement, the representatives highlighted that international conventions are the “cornerstone” of the international drug control system. Canada’s decision to legalize cannabis for non-medical use is, therefore, a fundamental breach of the international drug control framework. This domestic policy threatens to disrupt the integrity of the system itself, which is why a number of delegations stated that they disagree with Canada’s decision. Interestingly, not one delegation mentioned Uruguay, Netherlands, or the eight states in the US plus Washington, DC that permit the use of cannabis for non-medical use.

Whilst no delegation specifically referenced other countries with similar policies, there were quite a few countries (i.e. USA, Netherlands, France, and Germany) that emphasized the CND is not a place to single out any one member state. They highlighted that “finger pointing” at one country does not fit in line with the “Vienna Spirit.” Rather than engaging in a highly politicized debate, these countries suggested that everyone’s time would be better spent by focusing on the outlined agenda items that require attention. It is more productive, they argued, to have an evidence-based discussion that is situated within a broader context of treaty compliance for all member states. Canada stated that they would be open to having a dialogue on this topic, yet if that discussion unfolds then other member states must be ready to more broadly tackle the question of international treaty compliance. That discussion would not, and should not, be limited to cannabis and Canada only.  

In contrast to the neutral position and opposition, there was only one delegation that explicitly supported Canada – New Zealand. In their statement, it was clear that New Zealand appreciated Canada’s innovative approach and emphasis on public health.  New Zealand offered support and stated they would be closely following the implementation and implications of cannabis legalization in Canada.

Annual Report Questionnaire

One of the first matters on the agenda was the Annual Report Questionnaire (ARQ), a data collection survey filled out by member states each year. At the 61st CND regular session in March a resolution mandate called upon a revision of the ARQ. Angela Me, the director of research at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), presented on the progress of the ARQ’s revision. She highlighted the importance of scientific research in informing policy-making and the need for further improvement in the collection of data amongst Member States (MS). In regards to the development of creating a new ARQ, Me acknowledged two important contributing bodies: 1. Civil society’s capacity for strengthening data reporting, and 2. An expert panel consultation that will make recommendations to the UNODC and prepare a new draft questionnaire. One expert panel has already convened and there will be a second expert consultation group appointed in a later phase of the ARQ drafting process.

Following the address, a number of delegations (i.e. including Pakistan, Netherlands, Belgium, USA, Switzerland, Brazil, France, Argentina, and El Salvador) took the floor to accentuate the importance of relevant and reliable data as a pivotal step towards developing, implementing, and evaluating informed policies. Iran, Panama, and China expressed their concerns regarding the low responsiveness to the past ARQs. In response, Me stressed the need to streamline the upcoming version so it remains a flexible instrument that effectively reports emerging issues and challenges and more accurately reflects more accurately the current world drug problem. The new ARQ is expected after the 62nd session of the CND in mid-2019.

Preparations for the 2019 Ministerial Segment

A key discussion was the preparation for the 2019 Ministerial Segment, a special session of the CND that will allow input & discussion by member states from the entire General Assembly and lay out the key principles for global drug control moving forward. Aside from the rather typical and generic reiterations, reaffirmations, and recognition by a number of MS on the preparations for the 2019 ministerial segment, an important statement was made by Bulgaria on behalf of the EU (alongside support from Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Liechtenstein, Montenegro, Ukraine, and Norway). It stated 5 particular factors that can ensure a successful advancement of the UNGASS Outcome Document implementation.

First, the EU invited the Commission and UNODC to “further engage with other relevant UN entities…and within their mandates jointly develop activities and strategies promoting implementation, including designing and implementing integrated, evidence-based, and balanced national drug strategies, policies and cooperation programmes.” Moreover, the WHO’s role as the directing and coordinating authority on international health work was underlined. This was followed by an appeal for closer cooperation of UNODC with United Nations Development Programme, UNAIDS, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and Interpol.

Second, the EU stressed the importance to align the implementation of the UNGASS Outcome Recommendations with the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Both of these efforts aim to achieve the relevant SDGs and to address the world drug problem in a complementary and mutually reinforcing approach.

Third, the need for a cost-effective and transparent 2019 global drug policy review was underscored. This calls upon the involvement of all relevant UN agencies, civil society, and the scientific community to ensure this review is deemed a matter of utmost importance.

Fourth, the crucial role of civil society’s insightful input on the daily life of drug users was acknowledged. There was also a call for the full engagement of the Civil Society Task Force in preparations towards the 2019 Ministerial Segment – inclusive of the on-site deliberations. Moreover, the EU and its member states expressed their support on the intentions of the Civil Society Task Force to organize a civil society hearing in the margins of the Commission’s 62nd session and invited its outcome report to be presented at the Ministerial Segment.

Finally, attention was drawn to the importance of relevant and reliable data collection for an accurate overview of the worldwide drug situation and therefore the formulation of evidence-based responses. The EU encouraged all efforts for an effective inter-agency cooperation in strengthening and streamlining existing data collection and analysis tools at the international, regional, and national level.