Current Debates on Drug Policies at the International Level

Commission on Narcotic Drugs 2014

The Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) is the central drug policy-making body within the United Nations system and as such, it is one of the key actors in countering the drug problem at the global level. The Commission supervises the application of the drug control treaties in force today, monitors the world drug situation, develops strategies on international drug control and recommends measures to combat the world drug problem.

Looking closer at the topics dealt with at the CND plenary session and parallel events, it may be seen what the international agenda and current tendencies are as regards drug policies. Some of the main topics which have been discussed during the CND's annual plenary session (Vienna, March 2014) are as follows:

Tendency Towards Adopting a Comprehensive Public Health Approach to Substance Abuse

Effective public health approaches should take into consideration the consequences and harms  that arise not only from substance use and trafficking but also from drug policies. It has been proven that the most repressive and restrictive policies do not automatically reduce drug use. As a matter of fact, criminalizing those who use drugs may prevent them from seeking treatment services while being an important hindrance to the development of such services due to the fact that needed funds are diverted to criminal justice systems.

Given that this system has not achieved its goals, policies should be shifted towards the development of comprehensive public health approaches. These approaches should be grounded primarily on the recognition of the human rights of the people who use drugs and should count with the development of a package of health-based interventions.

Harm reduction was discussed alongside the plenary session. Legally speaking, the UN conventions do not refer to these issues explicitly and rather refer to prevention and early identification measures in addition to the treatment and social integration of drug users. Mr. Raymond Yans, President of the International Narcotic Control Board (INCB), emphatically stated that although certain aspects of the harm reduction approach were useful and in line with the conventions, Member States were not obliged to implement any of these measures, in particular at the expense of more urgent measures. In any case, the harm reduction approach was pinpointed of particular relevance in certain parts of the world. For instance, in Eastern Europe and Central Asia where the prevalence of HIV among people who inject drugs can reach up to an alarming 80%.

Role of Civil Society

The CND plenary session acknowledged the need to include civil society participation in the preparations for the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS), the highest level meeting on the world drug problem to be hold in 2016. Civil society actors, including NGOs, labor organizations or faith-based groups, are more important than ever. The past years have seen the rise of increasingly aware, connected and educated global citizens demanding new ways of engaging with the United Nations system.

Debate on Alternative Drug Policies

The legalization of cannabis in Uruguay and the states of Colorado and Washington in the USA led to a hot debate. The legalization of cannabis was analysed from the legal point of view (at the country level and regarding the international conventions), in terms of consumption and health system necessities, in relation with cartels of drug trafficking and security, etc. As what will happen in countries where cannabis was decriminalized remains uncertain, it will be crucial to further develop research on the consequences of legalization in these regions. 

A better coordination among the different policies implemented by the member states was referred as a crucial element to avoid disruption of the global drug policies.

Availability of Drug Medicines in Developing Countries

International drug control bodies should ensure the availability of drug medicines such as opioid analgesics to alleviate pain in developing countries. Currently, the consumption of narcotic drugs for pain relief is concentrated in a limited number of countries, mostly industrialized ones. Furthermore, the health problems that countries face differ significantly. While cancer is often seen as a disease of the rich countries, 70 per cent of the cancer deaths occur in low –and middle income. And these are the countries that have a limited amount of drug medicines.

The International Narcotic Control Board is the body in charge of monitoring the production, manufacturing and consumption of these drugs. It supervises the country´s demand of these medicines but unfortunately it does not count with enforcement mechanisms to balance its distribution worldwide. New distribution and enforcement mechanisms were demanded to ensure the access to drug medicines.

Furthermore, it is vital that the international drug regulations do not create regulatory barriers to the access of these medicines in their efforts to prevent the use of new psychoactive drugs.

Human Rights

One of the issues put on the table was the use of death penalty for drug crimes. In some countries such as China, the punishment for drug offences, drug trafficking mainly, is death penalty. The violation of human rights was denounced in this year´s session with the support of many countries.