The UN fades into irrelevance in the war on drugs

This should be a big moment for the UN. It should be the point where it becomes a major player in a drug debate which is currently taking place without it.

For decades, the UN has acted as the enforcement mechanism for the war on drugs, and with considerable success. That's success in enforcing a one-size-fits-all drug policy, not on actually reducing the damage of drugs themselves. On that basis, it has been an unmitigated disaster, but there's no reason to go into that here.

The extent of the disaster meant countries started experimenting with alternatives. The UN became increasingly irrelevant. But next month it'll hold a summit on drug policy in New York.

It’s the first in a decade and a lot has changed since the last one. The world's drug policeman, the US, has become one of its leading drug law reformers. Countries like Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia, who would previously do the US' bidding on drugs, are now leading demands for a rethink. Various UN agencies have highlighted the inadequacy of a draconian criminal response, particularly on medical grounds. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon himself has called for the meeting to be a "wide-ranging and open debate that considers all options".

But it looks like the UN is going to bottle it. The Commission on Narcotic Drugs, which is meeting this week in Vienna to continue preparing an 'outcome document' for next month's event, appears to be wiping any notion of reform off the table.

To avoid the case for drug reform nowadays, you have to actively put your hands over your ears. And that is precisely what they have done. The fact the meeting is even being held in Vienna is part of the problem. A lot of countries – including virtually all African and the Caribbean member states – don't have permanent representation there.

So they’ve been effectively excluded from a process which has a profound impact on them. Worse, most of the talks are being conducted informally, making it easier to freeze out critical voices from the discussion.

The regressive wing of the international drugs debate is ready and willing to contribute, however. And indeed, they are the people invited to the informal meetings. Now that the US has declined the role of global drug policeman, Russia has eagerly taken up its mantel, and with it come its various client states. China is also a major player trying to maintain the status quo. And there are more unusual combinations too. Sweden remains heavily prohibitionist, as does Japan. Pakistan, Singapore and Iran want to maintain the death penalty for drug offences. These are the bizarre and unholy alliances of the global drug war.

But even with this eccentric and formidable coalition of drug warriors, the dominant strain of thought is towards reform. Many member states, civil society organisations and UN agencies are calling for an approach grounded in human rights and public health rather than criminal law. Others want an end to criminalisation of drug use altogether. Some are limiting themselves to simply demanding the end of the death penalty for drug use. All of these submissions were made.

But then something strange happened. They disappeared. The drafts released so far (we're currently on number three) don’t seem to make any mention of these submissions. The process has been so pointless and disappointing that nearly 200 civil society organisations got together to write a statement on the current state of the draft document. They found it contained "no operational outcomes or actions" to address drug challenges. It wasn't even prepared to establish an expert group to conduct a critical review.

They say the document ignores Ban Ki-moon's demand that the UN start considering "all options" and instead reaffirms the status quo. Laughably, the current draft even claims "tangible and measurable progress" is being made in the war on drugs, although it does not give any evidence for this. The repeated submissions by various groups for an end to drug criminalisation have been ignored altogether. Even the term "harm reduction" has been excluded. Only in the frankly insane world of drug prohibition could that phrase be considered controversial. 

Depressingly, the document reaffirms the UN's commitment to a "society free of drug abuse" by 2019. That goal was originally set in 2009, after the 1998 slogan of "a drug free world – we can do it!" failed to turn into reality. One wonders how often otherwise sane people can make these sorts of claims. There is surely no intellectually functioning adult in the world who believes we could have a drug free society in three years, even if it were desirable. But there it is, in the text. What is not in the text are references to the various experiments in a legal and regulated drug market around the world – for instance those found in Colorado, or Canada, or Holland. They are like some terrible family secret, never to be mentioned around the dinner table.

As the civil society statement says, the "non-inclusive and nontransparent nature of the preparatory process" means that we are now looking at a "serious systemic failure of the UN system". They're right. The hijacking of a UN process by blood-mad drug warrior zealots only partly explains what’s happening in Vienna this week. Part of it is also the fault of the UN model. Drug policy is being worked out on a consensus approach, where just one member complaining means the words get taken out altogether. Consensus is a nice-sounding word, but what this really means is that the process deteriorates into platitudinous guff, without any real meaning. And that favours the status quo.

The trouble here is that the status quo is intolerable. It is a status quo in which the UN has lost any authority on drug reform and is seen as ineffectual on one of the great issues of our time. It means a continued exacerbation of HIV and hepatitis C transmission, more executions for drug penalties, more systematic human rights abuses, more avoidable drug deaths each year, more corruption and failed states and rich gang leaders. It means more wasted lives pursuing a global policy which has demonstrably failed. The next month will see the UN either grasp this fact, or get left behind.