What Is UNGASS 2016?

Over the last few decades, the international war on drugs has led to public health crises, mass incarceration, corruption, and black market–fueled violence. Governments have begun calling for a new approach, and reforms in some countries have spurred unprecedented momentum for change. Pressed by drug war–fatigued Latin American leaders, the UN General Assembly held a review of the drug control system April 19–21, 2016, in New York City.

What is UNGASS?

The United Nations General Assembly Special Session, or UNGASS, is a meeting of UN member states to assess and debate global issues such as health, gender, or in this case, the world’s drug control priorities. The previous time a special session on drugs was held, in 1998, its focus was the total elimination of drugs from the world. Today, political leaders and citizens are pushing to rethink that ineffective and dangerous approach.

Why does this summit matter?

International debates on drugs are rarely more than reaffirmations of the established system. But today, things are different.

Never before have so many governments voiced displeasure with the international drug control regime. Never before, to this degree, have citizens put drug law reform on the agenda and passed regulatory proposals via referenda or by popular campaigns. Never before have the health benefits of harm reduction approaches—which prevent overdose and transmission of diseases like HIV—been clearer. For the first time, there is significant dissent at the local, national, and international levels.

UNGASS 2016 was an unparalleled opportunity to put an end to the horrors of the drug war and instead prioritize health, human rights, and safety.

But what does a UN meeting like this have to do with ordinary people’s lives?

The simple fact is that if your government wants to introduce drug policy reform, it may have to wrestle with the stewards of the drug control system in the UN.

For example, in the early 1990s, Switzerland faced a major drug problem. The country had open-air drug scenes and one of the highest rates of HIV in Western Europe. Rather than traditional, unsuccessful criminal justice approaches, the government pioneered health services such as heroin prescription, supervised consumption rooms, and community-based treatment. The Swiss people approved this policy through a series of referenda.

The results were eye-opening.

The number of new heroin users declined from 850 in 1990 to 150 in 2002; drug-related deaths declined by more than 50 percent between 1991 and 2004; levels of new HIV infections dropped 87 percent in 10 years, and there was a 90 percent reduction of property crime committed by people who use drugs.

However, rather than lauding these successes, the UN’s drug panel (the International Narcotics Control Board), accused the Swiss government of “aiding and/or abetting the commission of crimes involving illegal drug possession and use, as well as other criminal offences, including drug trafficking.”

When Uruguay experimented with new cannabis policies, the International Narcotics Control Board’s president went even further, accusing Uruguay of demonstrating “pirate attitudes.” This kind of insult against a country is extremely rare for a body of its kind.

In addition to criticism, some of these officials have a history of applauding some of the worst excesses in drug control. For example, after Bulgaria introduced a law that made possession of tiny amounts of drugs punishable with mandatory incarceration for as long as 15 years, the International Narcotics Control Board praised Bulgaria’s “political commitment and the will to deal with drug abuse.”

While condemnation from these bodies may not deter powerful countries, it can discourage smaller nations from experimenting with alternative approaches.

What was the outcome of UNGASS?

UNGASS produced an outcome document labeled, “Our joint commitment to effectively addressing and countering the world drug problem,” which was adopted on April 19, 2016. Despite several shortcomings, the document included positive language about programs and approaches related to decriminalization and harm reduction, even if it didn’t use those terms explicitly. It also acknowledged the potential for the medical use of controlled substances, discussed reducing the stigma and discrimination faced by drug users, and called for increased access to life-saving health and legal services.

A range of activities both inside and outside the UN harnessed the diversity of voices represented in the drug policy movements. Many actors gathered at the Museum of Drug Policy, while the Caravan for Peace, Justice, and Life held rallies throughout the city, shedding light on the devastation caused by the war on drugs throughout Latin and Central America. Mothers shared moving stories about children they lost to overdoses, and faith leaders from across religions came together at the Abyssinian Church in Harlem to call for a new approach. The collective effect of reformist governments and civil society voices made it clear that many have evolved beyond the wishful thinking of a drug-free world

How are the Open Society Foundations involved?

For decades, we have promoted research documenting the heavy costs of the war on drugs, as well as success stories from countries that have implemented smart policies. We also published a series of reports in advance of UNGASS, including research into drug courts and their unintended consequences, and an examination of how the drug war affects girls and women uniquely.

Our partners are working with civil society groups and governments to promote real debate on drug law reform. This work includes coordinating meetings between governments and grassroots organizations, publishing reports on priorities for international debate, organizing days of action to draw attention to the damages of the drug war, and holding events that will engage policymakers.

There will be social media campaigns, days of action, calls on policymakers to stand up for change, and much more.