UNGASS 2016: Controversial Debates, Topics & Issues

A summary of some of the debates and main issues raised by the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the global drug problem 

Drugs and Health

Appeal for a human rights and health-centred approach to drug policies.

Alignment of drugs policies with Sustainable Development Goals. Poverty and inequality are root causes of substance abuse and drug trafficking.

  • Call to implement evidence-based interventions, including education and prevention, treatment, reintegration. The need for funding was reinforced.
  • The inclusion of harm reduction policies has been hotly debated. Some of the main UN agencies have argued in favour of such policies, with a strong support from civil society representatives, the EU and other countries.
  • General consensus to ensure universal access to essential medicines
  • Need to address stigma and discrimination of people who abuse substances.
  • Need for enhanced cooperation between UN agencies.
  • However, no consensus could be reached on the legalisation of medical and non-medical use of cannabis.

Drugs and Crime

  • Clear demand to implement proportionality of sentencing for drug-related offences and alternatives to incarceration. Relevance of distinguishing between small and big time criminals is needed.

“Cannot teach a bird to fly in an elevator, nor can you teach someone to have a healthy lifestyle if they are in prison. Prison is not an option for having more healthy young people in our society.” (Costa Rica)

  • Some countries called for the depenalisation and decriminalisation of drug use. This was not supported by all countries.
  • Numerous countries prioritized human rights over drug policies and supply reduction measures. The “war on drugs” was mostly criticized by countries in Latin America.  On the opposite, various countries continue to defend and implement a zero tolerance approach (Pakistan, China, Indonesia and Singapore among others).
  • An increasing threat is posed by money laundering on the global economy, in addition since there is a strong link between drug trafficking, money laundry and terrorism, measures must be implemented to counter attempts to abuse the financial system to further criminal and terrorist purposes.
  • There is a need to strengthen law enforcement cooperation and mutual assistance: cross border cooperation, sharing criminal intelligence, collaboration and coordination among criminal justice institutions and other relevant institutions.

“Punitive approaches to drug policy have contributed to the erosion of fair trial and justice rights (…) A second shared concern was the fact that the criminalisation approach has led to prison overcrowding and congestion of criminal systems overall. 

Drugs and Human Rights

  • Strong call of the vast majority of countries against death penalty for drug-related offences. Undoubtedly, the most polemic aspect as it was not included in the outcome document because a reduced number of countries were not willing to give it up. The vast majority of Member State interventions demanded to impose a moratorium.
  • Special needs of women, children and other vulnerable populations (like ethnic groups, migrants, etc.) were pointed out. These should be taken into account to tailor-made specific treatment programs. Importance of providing proper health care and access to treatment services.

New Challenges, Threats and Realities

  • New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) represent a threat to public health. Legislation, prevention and treatment are needed and countries should adapt their approach to NPS because of their changing and transnational nature.
  • Need to work on expanding and promoting early warning and information sharing systems. Member states must increase communication and cooperation, share intelligence and disseminate practices.
  • Follow the principle of common and shared responsibility in drug policies.

Alternative Development

alternative-developmentThere can be no sustainable development without peaceful and holistic responses, this is why the world drug problem should be addressed by ensuring a development approach. Alternative development programs have proved effective not only in reducing drug cultivation but also in improving socioeconomic conditions of marginalized farming communities.

  • Alternative development should be included in broader development strategies and programs must be designed with a human rights-based approach that involves all relevant stakeholders including farmer communities.
  • In order to unlock the potential of alternative development, the discrepancy in its political endorsement and the limited funding it receives (most often on a short-term basis) must be addressed. Alternative development funding must be scaled up.