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Home > CityWide starts debate ahead UNGASS 2016.

Pike, Brigid (2015) CityWide starts debate ahead UNGASS 2016. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 55, Autumn 2015, pp. 7-8.

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Everyone knows that in a few months’ time, April 2016, the UN General Assembly will be holding a two-day debate on the UN’s drug prohibition policy. It is the first time that all 190-odd UN member states have debated the drugs issue since 1998, when they voted for a plan to make the world drug-free by 2008. Reviewing this plan in 2009, the member states agreed the drugs issue remained a ‘serious problem’, and voted in a new political declaration and plan of action to continue tackling the problem.1


The purpose of the 2016 UNGASS debate is to review progress in implementing the 2009 political declaration and action plan, and to assess the achievements and challenges in countering the world drug problem.2 That small clause, to assess the achievements and challenges, is causing a huge amount of discussion and debate among and within governments and civil society around the world.3


Ireland is no exception. On 4 September 2015, the CityWide Drugs Crisis Campaign hosted a public event in Dublin, which included a screening of the film Breaking the taboo,4 followed by a panel discussion and audience Q&A session on the future of the ‘war on drugs’. The panel comprised Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group and member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Minister of State with responsibility for the National Drugs Strategy, Bernie McDonnell, Director of Services, Community Awareness of Drugs, and Fr Peter McVerry, social justice campaigner. Keelin Shanley, broadcaster and RTÉ journalist, was moderator of the discussion.


Made in 2011, Breaking the taboo is a film documentary about the last 40 years of the ‘war on drugs’, focusing on Columbia, Brazil, Mexico, the United States and Afghanistan. In Mexico and Columbia alone, over 100,000 people have been killed in recent decades owing to the operations of drug cartels and organised criminal gangs involved in the illicit drugs trade. The film ends by examining the case put forward by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, in a report published in 2011,5 for drug liberalisation as the best way of dealing with the drug problem: it looks at decriminalisation of drug use, provision of safe injecting facilities, and regulation of the drug market.


In the panel discussion that followed, the Minister reiterated his commitment to facilitating the piloting of a safe injecting facility in Dublin before the end of 2015, and indicated his support for the decriminalisation of cannabis use. He acknowledged that decriminalisation was unlikely to be achieved during the lifetime of the present government. The arguments for and against these two options took up much of the panel discussion and the audience Q&A session. Thus, it is apparent that Ireland has broken the taboo on talking about the challenges on the demand side of the drug problem. But by the same token, it is apparent Ireland has not broken the taboo on talking about the challenges on the supply side.


And yet it was concerns about the supply side that led South American countries Columbia, Guatemala and Mexico to call for UNGASS 2016.6 Writing in 2012 from their own devastating experiences, these countries warned that ‘transnational organized crime and, in particular, the violence that it spreads in the course of its criminal activities, represent a serious problem that compromises the development, security and democratic life of all nations,...’. They called for member states to intensify their efforts with regard to the prevention and punishment of crime, the provision of social programmes in education, health, leisure and employment, and the prevention and treatment of addictions so as to preserve the social fabric. But on the supply side they called for a paradigm shift:

That the United Nations should exercise appropriate leadership in this effort and conduct a process of in-depth discussion in order to analyse all the available options, including regulatory or market measures, with a view to establishing a new paradigm for preventing the flow of resources to organized crime organizations;


At the CityWide event in Dublin in early September, Minister Ó Ríordáin was careful to stress that when he talked about decriminalisation, he was not talking about legalisation: decriminalising the possession of small amounts of cannabis does not mean legalising the supply of cannabis. Although the concept of regulation was examined in the course of the film Breaking the taboo, the word was not mentioned by the Minister or by any other contributors at the CityWide event.


‘Legalisation’ implies the removal of all legal restrictions on the drug market, which in turn suggests ‘open slather’. ‘Regulation’ on the other hand, which was discussed in the film and which was explicitly mentioned by the sponsors of the UNGASS resolution, implies control – of the production, distribution, sale and consumption of drugs – in other words, control of both supply and demand.


In recent years a growing number of countries have begun experimenting with various regulatory approaches to the illicit drug market – coffee shops in the Netherlands, cannabis clubs in Spain, a strict government-controlled cannabis market in Uruguay, commercial recreational marijuana operations in various states in the USA, and the licensing for sale of psychoactive substances clinically proven to be ‘low risk’ in New Zealand. While regulating the illicit drug market is still largely uncharted territory, with uncertain outcomes, policy analysts argue there are compelling reasons to press ahead with such experiments,7 and a recent review of risks commonly associated with cannabis regulation finds that the evidence for risks is ‘weak’ (see Table 1).8

While there may be good reasons to resist the arguments and the analysis supporting experiments in regulation, a preliminary paragraph in the 2009 UN Political Declaration with regard to the world drug problem nevertheless indicates that governments and civil society organisations should at least ensure a balanced consideration of the achievements and the challenges on both the supply and the demand side of the illicit drug problem:


… the world drug problem remains a common and shared responsibility that requires effective and increased international cooperation and demands an integrated, multidisciplinary, mutually reinforcing and balanced approach to supply and demand reduction strategies.1


1 UN Office of Drugs and Crime (2009) Political declaration and plan of action on international cooperation towards an integrated and balanced strategy to counter the world drug problem.

2 Resolution adopted by the General Assembly [on the report of the Third Committee (A/67/459): International cooperation against the world drug problem. A/RES/67/193

3 for background and up-to-date information on preparations for UNGASS 2016.

4 Breaking the taboo film viewed on 8 September 2015 at

5 Global Commission on Drug Policy (2011) Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. Rio de Janeiro: Global Commission on Drug Policy.

6 Letter dated 2 October 2012 from the Permanent Representatives of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General. A/67/493

7 Caulkins JP, Hawken A, Kilmer B and Kleiman MAR (2012) Marijuana legalization: what everyone needs to know. New York: Oxford University Press.

8 Werb D, Watson TM and Maghsoudi N (2015) State of the evidence: cannabis use and regulation. Toronto: International Centre for Science in Drug Policy.

Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
October 2015
Page Range
pp. 7-8
Health Research Board
Issue 55, Autumn 2015

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