02/05/2016 2:19 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:52 PM AEST

UNGASS 2016: Evolution Rather Than Revolution In The War On Drugs

UNGASS 2016 was controversial by UN standards. While it stopped well short of a drug reform revolution, it has provided some very important first steps in the evolution of global drug policies.

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Syringe and needle

Last month's United Nation's General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem left most people scratching their heads trying work out what was actually achieved. Firebrand political leaders and civil society drug reformers alike were angry that, in the end, UNGASS was a wasted opportunity: there was no revolution in global drug policy. For them the implications are clear, for the time being the 'war on drugs' will continue unabated.

But the news isn't all bad. UNGASS 2016 was still a landmark moment in global drug policy reform: it was just more evolutionary than revolutionary, but no less important. Because of UNGASS there is now a wider acceptance that the current punitive approaches to drug use aren't working as intended, there has been a change in language around drug users, and there is an increased UN acceptance of drug treaty 'flexibility'.

Global drug policy finds its origins in three drug control conventions: Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961, UN Convention of Drug Convention on Psychotropic Substances 1971, and UN Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances 1988.

The UN member states set out how they'll implement these conventions in the form of a Political Declaration and Plan of Action.

In 2009, the UN member states established the 10-year Political Declaration and Plan of Action International Cooperation Towards an Integrated and Balanced Strategy to Counter the World Drug Problem.

The central goal of the global drug policy, set out in the UN's political declaration and drug control conventions, is the elimination of the use and trade of illicit narcotics. But this goal is detached from the reality of drug use and the global drug problem. The hard line interpretation of this goal, used by most nation states, doesn't reflect the spirit or intent of the conventions -- reducing the harmful effects of substances that are being, or are likely to be, abused in such a manner as to constitute a public health and social problem.

In 2012, Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia argued that the current approach to drug control wasn't just failing, but it was playing into the hands of criminals. Representatives from Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia successfully lobbied for an extraordinary Special Session of the UN general Assembly to be held on the world drug problem.

Drug policy is a tough nut to crack. There's never going to be a consensus about what should be done nationally, let alone globally. So the expectations that UNGASS 2016 could somehow bring about revolutionary change was on shaky ground from the start.

As was to be expected, the stalwarts of hard-line drug policy: Russia, China and Singapore, all argued strongly for a continuation of zero-tolerance regimes. But overwhelmingly, the language contained within the General Assembly Joint Commitment to Effectively Addressing and Countering the World Drug Problem, reflects a greater focus on prevention and treatment.

While the UNGASS commitments didn't decry enforcement responses, participants made it clear that militaristic strategies don't work.

Leading up to UNGASS, many drug policy reformers were hoping for a move towards the decriminalization of illicit narcotics and psychoactive substances. But decriminalisation is unlikely, on its own, to reduce the societal harm created by the use and abuse of narcotic and psychotropic drugs. And as illustrated by the illegal trade in tobacco products, decriminalisation isn't a guarantee that the violence and corruption associated with black markets will be eliminated either. If decriminalisation is to occur at a global level, it's most likely a long way off.

One of the most striking differences between the UNGASS commitment and other global drug policy documents is the recent change in language from an enforcement to a harm-reduction focus. UNGASS 2016 has led to an evolutionary change in the way that drug users, harm reduction and demand reduction are discussed in global drug policy: if at first only in the language that is used.

UNGASS has, although passively, focused commitment on policy that contributes towards reducing the desire or need for illegal/illicit drugs. In doing so, there are now commitments to moving the management of users from a punitive approach to a model more aligned with harm reduction. This has manifested in commitments to early intervention, education, and rehabilitation. But these commitments stop well short of the harm reduction mechanisms required to address the estimated 400,000 drug related deaths that occur globally each year.

One of Australia's leading drug reform advocates, Alex Wodak, describes UNGASS as 'the last big international forum before global drug prohibition collapses'. But this kind of fatalistic perspective doesn't take into account the glacial speed of international relations reform.

The most important drug reform outcome to come from UNGASS 2016 was not written as a commitment. During the general assembly both Canada and Mexico made it clear that they're going their own way with drug policy reform. Mexico is going to increase the quantity of marijuana that may be kept under personal use provisions. Canada is going further with the declaration of their intent to legalise cannabis.

In both cases these declarations didn't result in any UN action. Neither are they going to lead to a collapse in global drug prohibition. One could argue, though, that the absence of objections represents a new era of 'flexible' interpretation of drug conventions.

UNGASS 2016 was controversial by UN standards. While it stopped well short of a drug reform revolution, it has provided some very important first steps in the evolution of global drug policies.