UNGASS 2016: Prospects for Treaty Reform and UN System-Wide Coherence on Drug Policy

Journal of Drug Policy Analysis
March 2016

This paper explores key lessons from the 1990 Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on Drug Abuse (UNGASS 1990) and the 1998 Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS 1998), and tracks subsequent policy events and trends. It discusses the wide array of increasing tensions and cracks in the “Vienna consensus,” as well as systemic challenges and recent treaty breaches.

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Various options for treaty reform are explored and the following questions are considered: Given policy developments around the world this past decade, what outcomes can the 2016 Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS 2016) have in terms of a new political compromise? How can UNGASS 2016 contribute to more system-wide coherence where previous attempts failed? Can UNGASS 2016 realistically initiate a process of modernizing the global drug control system and breathe oxygen into a system risking asphyxiation? Finally, is there a chance that treaty reform options will be discussed at all, or do today’s political realities still block possible future regime changes?

Key Findings

  • In April 2016, the United Nations (UN) will dedicate, for the third time in its history, a Special Session of the General Assembly (UNGASS) to review the performance of the UN drug control system and provide an opportunity for improving the UN’s normative guidance and legal and institutional framework.
  • Initiatives taken at UNGASS 1990 to develop a UN system-wide coherent drug policy failed dramatically over the following decade.
  • UNGASS 1998 supported the quixotic goal of a drug-free world by setting 2008 as the target to “eliminate or significantly reduce” the global illicit drugs market.
  • Controversial issues like cannabis regulation and treaty reform are unlikely to appear prominently on the UNGASS 2016 agenda.
  • Arguments denying conflict between cannabis regulation and the strictures of the UN conventions are politically motivated and lack a sound legal justification.
  • By stretching the treaty-flexibility approach beyond the legally defensible, the United States is reverting to selective adherence to international law based on political expedience.
  • The drug control conventions lack built-in review mechanisms to enable the system’s evolution, but there are several treaty reform options that do not require consensus, such as the rescheduling of substances.
  • Modifications inter se may offer an attractive interim option for like-minded countries to legitimize legal regulation of the cannabis market under international law by modifying the treaty only between themselves.
  • An expert advisory group could again be established to review the UN drug control architecture, system-wide incoherence, treaty inconsistencies, and legal tensions regarding cannabis regulation.