United Nations Common Position on Drug Decriminalisation

A young person speaks into a microphone, several others are seated behind her

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Earlier this year, the Chief Executives Board (CEB) of the United Nations (representing 31 UN agencies) adopted a common position on drug policy that endorses decriminalisation of possession and use of scheduled substances. While a number of UN agencies have made similar calls in the past, this CEB statement means it is now the common position for the entire UN family of agencies. Crucially, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has also endorsed the position; finally clarifying their previously ambiguous position on decriminalisation.

  1. The purpose of the common position is:
  2. To guide approaches across the United Nations system, stepping up efforts to ensure that “no one is left behind”.
  3. To inspire the planning and implementation of United Nations activities, including joint inter-agency activities.
  4. To speak with one voice and raise awareness of the multifaceted nature of the “world drug problem”.
The document recognises that “the concern for the health and welfare of humankind underpins the three international drug control conventions” and aims to “support the development and implementation of policies that put people, health and human rights at the centre”.

Pan-UN support for decriminalization of personal possession and use didn’t appear out of the blue. The most prominent call for decriminalisation was made by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2014. Since then, the calls have come from a range of agencies including UN Women, the UN Development Program, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.There have also been a series of significant joint statements from a broader range of agencies that made an explicit call for decriminalisation, including the 2015 ‘Technical brief: HIV and young people who inject drugs’, co-badged by 10 UN agencies (including the WHO, UNFPA, UNHCR, the World Bank, UNDP, UNESCO, UNAIDS, UNICEF, and for the first time, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.) And more recently in the 2017 Joint United Nations statement on ending discrimination in health care settings’ which was signed by 12 UN agencies, but not by the UNODC.

Historically the UNODC’s position on decriminalisation has been ambiguous enough to avoid any clarity and/or commitment – much to the frustration of other agencies and, notably, civil society. With this apparent lack of leadership from UNODC, civil society has had to play a strong assertive role in the proceedings around international drug policy proceedings.

Following some media fuss in 2015, the UNODC promised a document clarifying their position on decriminalisation, which was to be submitted to the 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS). In their position, the UNODC reverted back to the language of the 1988 UN drug convention that mentions the vague enough “Alternatives to conviction or punishment” instead of the anticipated call for decriminalization.

So the common position represents a long overdue unambiguous commitment from the UN’s lead drug policy agency, the UNODC, in favour of decriminalisation.

Most of us thought that it’s announcement just before the 2019 High Level Ministerial Segment would signal a shift in the debates at the annual meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs and disrupt the way UNODC’s ambiguity had been serving as a political cover for those member states who have opposed decriminalisation. Unfortunately, there seems to have been little impact on CND proceedings. It was not until October that the common position found a forum to be talked about at CND, when a side event titled “UN System Common Position on Drug-Related Matters” was hosted by the European Union. This event was much appreciated by civil society, yet if you read through the transcript on the CND Blog, it is clear to see the announcement was purely for show and held no real influence on the proceedings. It was a side event, held during lunchtime, far away from the main debate.

Regardless, the CEB position statement could be a valuable document to be leveraged by reform advocates to highlight the gap between many domestic policies/laws and UN-defined best practice. Especially considering that the paradigm shift in the discourse is undeniable: referencing public health, human rights, evidence based policy, and sustainable development, a clear divergence has arisen from the more punitive narratives that usually emerge from consensus statements.

The serious push for a system wide coherence which this CEB document represents has been a major ask by leading civil society advocates and finally forced the UNODC to engage and modernise many of their old-school drug war narratives.

A brief history of key events in global drug policy “progress”(Also see: A decade of drug policy – A civil society shadow report):

  • In 2009, the international community agreed on a global strategy for addressing the world drug problem. With the adoption of the Political Declaration and Plan of Action on International Cooperation towards an Integrated and Balanced Strategy to Counter the World Drug Problem, governments established 2019 as the target year for states to eliminate or reduce significantly and measurably the illicit cultivation, production, trafficking and use of drugs, as well as the diversion of precursors, and money-laundering.
  • In 2012, the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico called on the UN to host an international conference on drug policy reform ahead of the 2019 target date.
  • The Commission on Narcotic Drugs conducted a high-level review of the implementation of the 2009 Political Declaration in 2014. The high-level segment adopted a Joint Ministerial Statement, which identifies achievements, challenges and priorities for further action. The statement reiterates member states’ commitment to the prohibitive international drug control conventions.
  • In 2016, the General Assembly held a special session on the world drug problem to review progress made in the implementation of the Political Declaration and Plan of Action and adopted a resolution to “… effectively addressing and countering the world drug problem.” The session is often referred to as UNGASS (United Nations General Assembly Special Session) where civil society involvement made huge strides.
  • In 2019, a High Level Ministerial Segment was held ahead of the regular annual conference of the CND, the outcomes represent the latest recognized international consensus on global drug control: (1) Report on the multi-stakeholder roundtables outcome (2) Ministerial Declaration (3) Multiyear Workplan

What is next is also up to us… If you would like to support SSDP in advocating for sensible drug policies globally and learn more about the high-level policy processes, get in touch with your movement building fellow today – CND 2020 is just around the corner!

Want to learn more? Dive deep into drug policy and the UN’s attempts to consolidate a system-wide coherence (a report by IDPC&TNI).