Home > Responses to UNGASS 2016.

Dillon, Lucy (2017) Responses to UNGASS 2016. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 60, Winter 2017, pp. 8-9.

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The United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the world drug problem was held in April 2016. It attracted formal responses from a variety of civil society bodies working in the area of drug policy. This article looks at responses from two of these bodies – the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) and the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP). UNGASS-related publications by these bodies were included in earlier issues of Drugnet Ireland, as part of the ‘Towards UNGASS 2016’ column.1


International Drug Policy Consortium

The IDPC is a global network of 163 NGOs. It focuses on issues related to drug production, trafficking and use, promoting objective and open debate on the effectiveness, direction and content of drug policies at national and international levels. The network supports evidence-based policies that are effective at reducing drug-related harm.2


In September 2016, the IDPC published its version of the proceedings of the UNGASS.3 The document provides a summary of each of the sessions held ‒ the plenary and the five roundtable discussions on: (1) drugs and health; (2) drugs and crime; (3) cross-cutting issues: drugs and human rights, youth, women, children and communities; (4) new challenges, threats and realities; and (5) drugs and development. The summaries include a focus on the input of civil society representatives, and highlight where there was a lack of consensus between country representatives.


In addition to the summaries, the report provides an overall critique of the UNGASS process. From the outset, the IDPC is critical of the central role of the pre-negotiated UNGASS outcome statement.4 It describes it as having being negotiated through a process characterised by a ‘lack of transparency and accountability’. By virtue of the document having been essentially finalised prior to UNGASS, ‘a number of barriers were in place to hinder civil society participation. This all served to ensure that the UNGASS was not the drug policy revolution that some stakeholders seemed to be expecting’. The report also describes barriers to civil society participating at the UNGASS event itself. For example: the restrictions and censorship placed on their distribution of literature and reports; and access to sessions being denied to a significant number of civil society attendees on the day, despite having previously confirmed attendance. Despite these barriers, the IDPC argues that ‘the voice of civil society – including affected populations such as people who use drugs – was strongly heard at the UNGASS, both in the preparations and the meeting itself’.


While the report tends to be critical of the UNGASS outcome statement, the IDPC also concedes that it ‘undoubtedly takes a step forward from previous commitments [at UN level] – not least in terms of access to medicines, human rights, overdose prevention and proportionate sentencing’. However, based on other elements of the UNGASS (e.g. the roundtable and plenary sessions, and inputs from civil society and country statements), it describes the so-called ‘Vienna Consensus’ (manifest in the outcome document) as ‘irreversibly shattered’ in light of the ‘divergent stances’ of member states – it described these as ‘impossible to ignore on key issues such as the death penalty, decriminalisation, regulated markets and development’.


In conclusion, the report identified that:


The challenge now for the drug policy reform sector is to maintain the momentum and attention which the UNGASS managed to achieve – within the UN, the media and broader civil society. This requires a concerted effort to keep the fire burning, rather than leaving it to burn out and to build on the steps forward and lessons learned to ensure further significant shifts in 2019 or 2020 [at next UN review of the drug problem].


Global Commission on Drug Policy

The GCDP describes itself as made up of 25 political leaders and leading thinkers from across the political spectrum. It sets out to ‘bring to the international level an informed, science-based discussion about humane and effective ways to reduce the harm caused by drugs to people and societies’.5


On the final day of the UNGASS, the GCDP issued a public statement on the event.6 It described itself as ‘profoundly disappointed’ with the adopted UNGASS outcome statement. It argued that:


The document does not acknowledge the comprehensive failure of the current drug control regime to reduce drug supply and demand. Nor does the outcome document account for the damaging effects of outdated policies on violence and corruption as well as on population health, human rights and wellbeing.


The UNGASS outcome statement was perceived to have sustained ‘an unacceptable and outdated legal status quo’ by reaffirming the three international conventions as ‘the cornerstone of global drug policy’. The GCDP criticised UNGASS for not seriously addressing what it sees as ‘the critical flaws of international drug policy’, including the criminalisation of drug users; the use of capital punishment for drug-related offences; and, the World Health Organization’s scheduling system of drugs. It also identified UNGASS as having failed both to advocate for harm reduction and treatment strategies that have been found to be effective and to offer proposals to regulate drugs and ‘put governments – rather than criminals – in control’.


The GCDP identified the outcome document as failing to recognise the considerable support for change demonstrated by many governments and civil society groups, and the ‘many positive drug policy reforms already underway around the world’. It described as ‘vital’ that the tensions between the restrictions imposed by the international narcotics conventions and ongoing initiatives on the ground are resolved. In conclusion, it encourages and supports governments and civil societies in their efforts ‘to fundamentally realign drug policy so that health, citizen safety and human rights are paramount’. 


1    International Drug Policy Consortium: https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/25130/; Global Commission on Drug Policy: https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/23301/ and https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/23684/

2    For more information on the International Drug Policy Consortium, visit http://idpc.net

3    The United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the world drug problem: report of proceedings (2016). IDPC: London. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/26049/

4      As outlined in issue 58 of Drugnet Ireland (https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/25954/), two key policy statements to emerge from the UNGASS process were: the EU common position; and the UNGASS outcome statement. The UNGASS outcome statement was agreed by member states at the 59th meeting of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna in March 2016, and was adopted at the start of the UNGASS.

5    For more information on the Global Commission on Drug Policy, visit http://www.globalcommissionondrugs.org

6    Public statement by the Global Commission on Drug Policy on UNGASS 2016 (2016). Available online at http://www.globalcommissionondrugs.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/FINALpublicstatementforGCDP.pdf

Item Type
Publication Type
International, Guideline, Article
Drug Type
All substances
Intervention Type
Issue Title
Issue 60, Winter 2017
January 2017
Page Range
pp. 8-9
Health Research Board
Issue 60, Winter 2017

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