Home » Side event: Legalizing the drug wars: A regulatory history of UN drug control

Side event: Legalizing the drug wars: A regulatory history of UN drug control

Organized by the World Society of Victimology with the support of Mexico, and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime

Tuesday Reitano, Deputy Director of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime: Welcome and thanks to co-panellists and co-organisers.

Dr Robert Peacock, President of the World Society of Victimology: Criminal groups have wasted no time in embracing today’s globalised economy. To address the scourge of drugs as a global problem (…) Sensitive to the needs of victims of crime, especially with reference to crimes called ‘victimless’, based on the conviction that all victims are equal. Regulatory measures must ensure non discrimination consistent with international law. Not only for marginalised victim groups but victim’s rights in general remain a global challenge and should be understood as universal rights. With context one can refer to historical, cultural, socioeconomic and geopolitical context, but recognition of root causes of crime and victimisation. Work on the SDGs, in particular the value of crime and victim strategies. But also proactive policing disproportionately targeting ethnic minorities and indigenous communities, undermining the legitimacy of police and the criminal justice system and the rule of law in general. Inequality is an issue that defines our times and risks destroying our society – as Guterres, UN SG said. (….) Instead of looking for structural and systemic solutions together with regulatory responses. Important and laudable, the concept of resilience, the ability to bounce back, has become a catch-word in international development and added to all kinds of policies. In some instances, not always able to fix it, stop it, but continuously entire communities to be resilient in the face of food and housing shortages, state corporate crime, public health biases, employment insecurity, etc. This conceals structural victimisation, including state-sanctioned violence against disenfranchised communities. The victimisation may be concealed and elevated undermining the success of implementation of legal instruments and frameworks. Ubuntu values, those of Mandela and Tutu, to express compassion, reciprocity, dignity, humanity to maintain community characterised by justice and shared humanity. As part of a greater whole. As crime and victimisation seek to dehumanise, it’s useful to apply a cultural lens on how individuals understand themselves in relation to others. This could re-emphasise the unity of humankind and promote the value of sharing resources… As John Collins says, to rise to the challenge, navigate coherence and flexibility internationally. 

Dr John Collins, Director of Academic Engagement, GI-TO: The book has two focuses: first, answer the historical question: where does the international legal framework for drug control come from? Part of the reason is that existing narratives of the system aren’t necessarily grounded in historical reality. What were the purposes and intents of the treaties? Second, attempt to apply an IR analysis of the future trajectories of the system. This framework is underpinned by historiography. Understanding history to know where we can go in the future. Also questions: Where did the ‘war on drugs’ come from? Was it a creation of the US, UN? Do the Conventions mandate a ‘war on drugs’? Are they a straightjacket? What’s the core of the system vs. peripheral aspects? I will mention names of countries not to pick on them but because they’re part of this story. Dispelling myths: first, I’ve read so much that the US created the Single Convention. The US didn’t create this system. The US did not initially support the Single Convention. This was a multilaterally negotiated Treaty. They weren’t forced and unwilling. Governments knew what they were signing up to. They had an active role negotiating them. I sympathise with the thrust to decolonise – The treaties were not a ‘neocolonial construct’, except as all UN treaties are a colonial endeavour. States were actually advocating for a drug control system to perform anti-colonialism. Arnold Taylor in 1969 talks about ‘a study in humanitarian reform’. Post-colonial states were the most vigorous and interested in developing stringent colonies. Drugs were considered a colonial remnant. The system does not enforce prohibition on member states. Member States signing up to the conventions were not signing for Prohibition. They thought they were codifying what was practised already in Member States. The negotiation was softened so that it didn’t impose obligations. The point was to manage the spillovers of the production, manufacture, trade and consumption of certain substances globally. Part of the original intent of the system was a limit on predatory behaviour by certain states. Certain states held an expansionist vision of control (like the US), but that wasn’t the predominant view among European states – they were seeking to align regulations and limit the use of dangerous drugs. Very limited dissent throughout. Even today, that is the case. Forward progress has always depending on consensus; it’s not about one state dictating norms against others. In the example of the US, it walked out of negotiations over the 1925 Convention – it never went into force. They also ignored negotiations on the Single Convention initially, trying to bring the 1953 Protocol into force – it understood the Convention as a watered down series of regulations. How did the Single Convention gain hegemony? Novice states were astounded at tensions at Plenipotentiary conference. Strict control advocates, like the US, were disconnected, strategically outmanoeuvred and unable to drive the process. Moderate states, like the UK, wanted a more flexible agreement without jeopardising national interest. For instance, not increasing prescription drug costs, which would have hurt the NHS. Ultimately, the system consolidates and rationalises an existing series of norms. As time went on, the system became more varied and complex. Initially, a small group of negotiating states with different approaches. It then became more complex and institutions, many states, and bureaucrats had different interests. Two core logics underpin negotiations: protect the regulatory core of the system (we saw this during UNGASS) and protect member states’ prerogatives (to diverge from the system). This is a functionalist model of change: the system evolves in a way that favours the most Member States in the room. Member state interests steer the system not vice versa. The system has been a facilitator of the ‘war on drugs’ not the creator. What comes next? We have a division between pluralists and integrationists. Integrationists argue for systemic coherence (a straightjacket of prohibition) – This includes reformists and conservatives. Reformist integrationists: tensions between national and international policies can only be relieved by formally changing the international system. The pluralist approach, which I subscribe to, argues that there’s a pragmatic utility of less integration and more flexibility in the immediate term as the system evolves around new norms, goals and strategies. Evidence develops at the local level that will percolate up to the system and drive change. Dialogue is a public good, so clear interest to maintain the system – UNGASS showed this; Member States didn’t want to break the core of the system, but rather change the edges. Breaking the system and rebuilding it had no sway. The idea is rather to use ambiguity. Cannabis legalisation is a key example, it creates tensions but it will ultimately be integrated into the system. Finally, the system formally began in 1909 and survived two world wars, the fall of the Soviet empire, the rise of multiplicity, it will continue to evolve. Whether it becomes an effective tool for better managing drug issues in the 21st century depends on local developments and capacity to manage tension and flexibility.

Ambassador Lindsay Skoll – Permanent Representative of the UK to the UN in Vienna: CND takes place in tragic geopolitical circumstances. We express solidarity with Ukraine at this terrible time. We attend CND to shape better futures of drug policy. Important to know how we got here. Excellent study by Dr Collins. Gratitude to co-panellists. There’s a lot of negative rhetoric about drugs – it’s all about drugs, combatting or fighting. The history of the UN drug policy is to come together to discuss shared rules. Remarkable achievement to make consensus based agreements at CND. And that we agree about substances under control to protect the public. It shoes the UN is an indispensable convenor. Unique to come together and discuss difficult issues, even as the backdrop is tragic. All members should continue to advance together, bolstering international rules. Dr Collins’ work gives a complex and nuanced history of drug control. The UK is proud of being part of the Commission. The book shows the influential role of the UK in drug policy. We have always done so. Member states from civil society, victims and academics get together to better understand each other and, together, make a difference. That’s the lesson I took from the book. Looking back, forward together, sharing and learning from each other, working together at global threats. 

Ambassador Umej Bhatia – Permanent Representative of Singapore to the UN in Vienna and Geneva: Congratulating Dr Collins for the launch of the book. The launch is a crucial event, it coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Singaporean drugs agency. The book touches upon the history of British colonialism in Singapore. Since our independence, we have fought for a drug-free Singapore. The book has detailed discussion on the negotiations. A line that struck me, quoting the UK mission in the 1950s: We must move against CND becoming ‘heavily weighted with an unscrupulous commercial block by doctrinaires’. This, clearly, has a lot to say about the current situation with cannabis legalisation. We needed a drug law to free our country from the harms of drug use. In 1973, we enacted the MDA. Singapore acceded to the 1961 convention in 1973, and then the 1971 convention and 1988 convention. The fundamental principle against drugs is to prevent harm to people and society. Not reduce, but prevent. This is much more effective than letting the drug problem go and fester. And much better than trying to reduce the drug harm afterwards. Prevention drug education, strict laws, robust enforcement, and evidence-informed rehabilitation – there’s a science to it. We have ample research on this. This approach has been successful in keeping the drug situation under control – we have no drug havens, legal parks that children are afraid to go to. Recidivism rates are declining. Arrests are declining. What Collins does in this wonderful book is provide a lot of useful perspectives. My PM said the lessons of history need to be reinforced, because we miss otherwise the hard-earned lessons. And this book speaks to this. 

Ambassador Luis Javier Campuzano Pina – Permanent Representative of Mexico to the UN in Vienna: Regarding the history of the war on drugs, prevailing inclination to say the beginning is the adoption of the 1961 convention or the famous speech of Nixon. As iconic as those moments are, I call them misguided because the approach embodied in that concept predates them. I wont’ identify a single moment, like the Opium Wars or the late 19th century conventions. Mexico considered narcotic drugs a venom since and has countered drug cartels for decades. Jewel from Resolution 2 adopted by the CND in 1947: ‘The CND having taken note during its examination of international illicit drafficking, enormous production of opium in Mexico, the escape of contraband into illicit trafficking is  a source of danger, recommends that the government takes appropriate measures to fulfil the obligations to suppress cultivation of opium’. Already in 1947, drug trafficking was a confrontation between states and not traffickers to states such as indicated like ‘a source of danger to other countries’. Throughout those years, Mexico was not only a pupil but a distinguished one. Few states engaged in the war on drugs as we did. How did Mexico go from the ‘front row’ to hang out with ‘hippy states’? A couple of years ago, we were called ‘narco-liberal state’ by one of our colleagues. Don’t ask me what that ridiculous term means. We accepted that the current approach isn’t working. Perhaps a narcoliberal state is one who questions why the ‘war on drugs’ is killing more people from the violence that it generates than drugs themselves. This is certainly true for cannabis. We ask that person or any of you if a state is ‘narcoliberal’ when it fosters efforts, like we do, to address the three main elements empowering drug trafficking: easy access to firearms, access to illicit proceeds, and impunity; instead of focusing on coercing peasants or others involved in illicit production due to structural poverty. Basically, Mexico will continue to make efforts to make our responses more efficient to challenges related to drug responses. The aim is the wellbeing and dignity of the person.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *