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Pike, Brigid (2015) Towards UNGASS 2016. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 52, Winter 2014, pp. 10-11.

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Since Issue 48, Drugnet Ireland has carried ‘Towards UNGASS 2016’ as a regular column. It reports briefly on policy initiatives, research and debates launched by UN member states and civil society organisations in the lead-up to the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the world drug problem, due to be held in 2016 (A/RES/67/193).


Released in July 2014, From drug war to culture war: Russia’s growing role in the global drug debate is the fifth policy brief published by the Global Drug Policy Observatory (GDPO) based in Swansea University. Prepared by Alexander Marshall, the policy brief outlines how, in the last decade, Russia’s drug policy has shifted from a ‘health and psychiatric-dominated discourse’ towards a ‘securitisation model’ and a ‘conservative cultural discourse’.  Marshall describes how Russia has used this general drug war discourse to increase its levers of influence in the international arena: ‘Russia in toto has implemented a relatively complex set of policies that appear set to present an explicit alternative agenda to proposals favouring greater harm reduction or decriminalisation at the next UNGASS summit in 2016.’


On 9 September 2014 the Global Commission on Drug Policy released Taking control: pathways to drug policies that work. Anticipating the debates at UNGASS 2016, the Commission proposes five pathways whereby governments may ‘improve the global drug policy regime’:

  1. put people’s health and safety at the centre of the picture,
  2. ensure access to essential medicines and pain control,
  3. end the criminalisation and incarceration of users,
  4. provide targeted prevention, harm reduction and treatment strategies for dependent users, and
  5. regulate drug markets and adapt enforcement strategies to target the most violent and disruptive criminal groups rather than low-level players.

The Global Commission calls on governments to ‘rethink the problem, do what can and should be done immediately, and not to shy away from the transformative potential of regulation.’


In October 2014 New Zealand’s regulatory framework for new psychoactive substances (NPS) was the subject of a ‘critical first assessment’ and discussion by a panel of international experts, published in the journal Addiction (109/10: pp.1580–­94). Lead author Chris Wilkins describes the framework as ‘the world’s first pre-market approval regulatory regime for NPS’: introduced in July 2013, the new regime provides that where clinical trial data show that an NPS product poses a ‘low threat’, it may be approved for manufacture and sale. While applauding the attempt at regulation, Wilkins and the expert panel raised some serious issues.

  • Evaluation criteria: Wilkins points out that standard medical clinical trials may not capture data relevant to recreational drugs, e.g. binge use, polydrug use, use by vulnerable groups and high-risk modes of administration. Lisia van Diemen points out that as a therapeutic effect is not the aim, the dosage of the product that is to be tested may be too low to detect any side-effects: the sample size of the product to be tested must be sufficient to detect side-effects.
  • For Alison Ritter, the key problem is that medical models of drug evaluation focus on therapeutic efficacy, e.g. alleviating symptoms, improving health and/or treating a disorder, and ignore the pleasure obtained from recreational drug use. She suggests it is possible to measure ‘pleasure outcomes’, and that users may be prepared to bear some degree of risk in exchange for the stated outcome.
  • Market dynamics: Wilkins identifies possible distortions in the legal market for NPS. The overt advertising of approved NPS products may make it difficult to suppress the illegal market in unapproved NPS products as they may appear identical to the approved versions. Lisia van Diemen asks what incentives exist for NPS manufacturers to submit their drugs for approval: it is an expensive and time-consuming exercise and many existing manufacturers are already operating successfully in the illegal market. Anne Line Bretteville-Jensen adds that manufacturers in the prevailing illegal environment have had little incentive to consider safety matters such as quality and consumer information, that maximising profits has been their main motivation, and why should they change now, particularly if, after the long evaluation process, their products are not approved, or are approved but do not succeed in the legal market place?

Brendan Hughes and Paul Griffith of the EMCDDA compare the New Zealand regulatory framework with that adopted in the EU, where responsibility for and cost of assessment does not lie with the producer, and the EU does not take any action with regard to substances deemed ‘low risk’ but does prohibit a consumer market for ‘moderate risk’ substances and controls ‘high risk’ substances. They discuss three EU member states – Poland, Romania and Ireland – that have introduced legislation banning the supply of any unregulated NPS that meet certain criteria until specific permission is given. They note that Poland and Romania also have ‘pre-market approval regimes’.

Van Diemen, as well as Hughes and Griffith, question whether legalising an NPS with no therapeutic effect will either reduce the introduction of other unregulated NPS or reduce the illegal use of controlled drugs. They argue that, to date, there is no evidence to support these assumptions.

  • Attitudes to risk and prohibition: Wilkins points out that what constitutes ‘low risk’ is not defined in the New Zealand legislation. Having discussed the need to consider the pleasure benefits derived from NPS use, Ritter concludes that unless the debate on drug regulation addresses the benefits as well as the risks of drug use, if it continues to focus on the risks alone, ‘it is unlikely that regulatory schemes will be able to resolve the bias of decision-makers towards prohibition’.
  • Looking at the drugs, rather than the users, Stephen Rolles and Danny Kushlick of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation argue that it is prohibition that is driving the NPS phenomenon: as long as certain categories of psychoactive substances are prohibited, manufacturers will continue to try and replace prohibited substances with uncontrolled ones. They comment: ‘It is reasonable to speculate that no substantial market for synthetic cannabinoids would have emerged had cannabis been available via a legally regulated market-place, not least because evidence suggest that users prefer cannabis, and synthetic cannabinoids products appear to be more risky in terms of more adverse health effects.’
Item Type
Publication Type
International, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Issue Title
Issue 52, Winter 2014
January 2015
Page Range
pp. 10-11
Health Research Board
Issue 52, Winter 2014

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