The international illicit drug trade cash flow is about $330 billion per year, despite the best efforts of the United Nations for the past two decades. Drug-related corruption and violence persist, and resources have been funneled away from health and development initiatives towards ineffective law enforcement. The UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs wrapped up its most recent meeting in March by drafting a resolution to be discussed at a special session of the UN General Assembly (UNGASS). This special session was a follow-up from a similar meeting back in 1998, during which the UN member states pledged to join the ‘war on drugs’ by implementing policies (based on a document drafted in 1961) designed to reduce the supply of, and demand for, illegal drugs by 2008. Clearly this approach is not working. It is high time we stop treating the illegal drug trafficking industry as something we can “battle” and move from a one-size-fits-all solution to a multifaceted strategy that allows each country to take a unique approach.
The 2016 UNGASS could have been a watershed moment in the international efforts to reduce the illegal drug trade. When the special session began, some expressed hope that the UN’s War on Drugs, which has had massive unintended costs, would be called to an end, and that the attendees would take a critical look at the most effective path forward. The session kicked off, though, by the member states agreeing to adopt the resolution that had been drafted back in March, a resolution which simply reiterated the UN’s commitment to promoting a society free of drug abuse, and reaffirmed commitment to the 1961 Convention: not exactly a groundbreaking motion. The major difference between the 2016 resolution and the various previous resolutions is a shift in focus towards individuals, putting people and communities first by promoting a health-based, rather than a militarized, approach towards illegal drugs. Another subtle shift: the rhetoric around this year’s UNGASS changed from “a drug free world” to “a society free of drug abuse,” suggesting a slightly less rigid plan of action.
These subtle changes are not enough to make a significant impact. What is needed is a radical change in the way the international community thinks about the treatment of illegal narcotics and the black market drug trade. The main benefactors from the global War on Drugs have been criminal organizations and drug cartels who pull in around $320 billion a year—a statement the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) supports—and drug enforcement efforts have been linked to instability, discrimination, human rights abuses, corruption, and violence. Focusing on traditional metrics like numbers of offenders incarcerated or tons of contraband seized has clearly not been working, and the UNGASS should have taken this opportunity to come up with a new framework that focuses less on criminalizing narcotics-related activities, and more on ways to promote public health and regulate this shadowy market. Now is the time for innovation, rather than for reiterating the same basic theories with a slightly different spin.
Ultimately, however, it seems unlikely that a UN agreement–even one that presents a drastic shift in drug policy and treatment—would be effective at reducing the illegal narcotics trade, primarily because a one-size-fits-all approach no longer applies. Countries have already begun taking drug policy into their own hands, rather than relying on UN conventions, as well they should: the situation on the ground in Mexico, for example, is vastly different from the situation in the Netherlands, and both countries should have the flexibility and freedom to implement policies that will be most effective in their unique circumstances.
Image: Marines unload thousands of pounds of illegal drugs from a vehicle during interdiction operations in southwestern Afghanistan (credit: Lance Cpl. Robert Carrasco, US Marine Corps/Wikimedia Commons)