Day 3 Side Event: Future of the Drug Control Conventions

Today, Ruth Dreifuss (Commissioner, Global Commission on Drug Policy), Roberto Calzadilla (Ambassador, Bolivia) and Dave Bewley-Taylor (Senior Lecturer, Swansea University) addressed an audience of member state and NGO representatives, speaking about the need to reform existing global and national drug policy systems so that they are capable of responding to modern-day challenges. Ruth called for debate on the prohibitionist philosophy of the UN conventions, experimentation with new ways of drug control, and the sharing of evidence and experience. She recalled the US ONDCP Gil Kerlikowske’s statement that it is not the conventions, but politics that have prevented investment in health and alternatives to incarceration programmes. Roberto explained Bolivia’s predicament of complying with both its obligations under the UN drug control system and its national constitution. The INCB’s condemnation of Bolivia’s denunciation and re-accession with reservation to the 1961 Convention is unhelpful and beyond its mandate of assisting member states in complying with the conventions. Dave reminded the audience that regimes change, and the global drug control regime is no exception. There are also benefits to exploring the flexibility of the convention by experimenting with new measures, such as reducing costs by diverting investment in law enforcement to strengthening health responses.

The audience responded with several comments, ranging from calling for legalization to sticking with the existing system and trying to encourage different ways of thinking and implementing measures. The INCB was singled out as an institution of concern, as it was not helping members to engage in and respond to debates on finding different ways of responding to modern challenges associated with drug use and supply. It was noted that the INCB is not a tribunal and it is unacceptable for a UN body of experts to make recommendations on how to strengthen their criminal sentencing practises for drug offences.

Some warned of the idea of rejecting the existing conventions, given the difficulty of negotiating new conventions and risk of ending up with an even more draconian convention. Another institution of concern is the CND, which is not engaging in nor leading any of the drug policy reform debates occurring in different parts of the world. The first 50 years of the 1912 convention was full of experimentation but the following 50 years saw an increasing crystallization of the system. There needs to be a new period of experimentation based on a reflection of developments in the drug situation of various countries. Some member states encouraged civil society members to keep working with them to reform drug control systems through policy making processes.

Some acknowledged the changing controls on cannabis as key to the reform of drug control policies, while at the same time recognising that changes are possible within the existing framework of the conventions via simple processes such as a simple majority vote for re-scheduling a particular substance. Legal highs may be another issue that can stimulate experimentation with different policy measures and reform of drug control systems.

Overall, most participants agreed that change in the drug policy world is happening and possible within existing structures. The pace and nature in which those changes will occur will likely depend on interpretations of the conventions adopted by stakeholders and subsequently, the spaces made available for reform measures.

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