The Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) convenes once a year in March in Vienna at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). In the recent past, the most exciting event was when Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, would show up and discuss the many uses of the coca leaf. However, this year was different with a heated debate occurring on the use of the death penalty for drug trafficking (condemning the death penalty didn’t happen, but the coalition continues to grow), a clear fracture between member states and preparations for the 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on drugs (UNGASS).
Much of the discussion focused on minutiae such as controlling food poppy seeds and using the Olympics as a means to live a drug-free life, but within these distractions, there were hints that change is both on the horizon and already occurring. Uruguay was clearly the strongest reform voice, defending their newly passed law to regulate and control the production, distribution, sale and consumption of cannabis. But there were also surprises. Ecuador took a strong stance on the need for an open debate, a willingness to review the conventions and strong civil society presence at the upcoming UNGASS meeting.
Within the Mexican delegation, there was a clear division of interests: whether to join the progressive group of like-minded countries or to maintain a firm grip on the status quo. Based on hearing the country statements and their interventions on the UNGASS resolution, as well as meeting with several of the delegation members, it is clear that the fracture will not be quickly resolved. While there was agreement on treating the drugs issue as a health problem, there is still no consensus on the means by which that will occur, nor whether regulation is part of that agreement. Mexico affirmed that they were against legalization, yet spoke about the need for alternatives and new ways of addressing the problem, joining forces with other countries who are already moving towards models of regulation.
Since Mexico was one of three countries, along with Colombia and Guatemala to request the Special Session on drugs, there is a responsibility to bring something new to the table. If we are going to continue with the same strategy of militarization, prohibition and criminalization, there is no need to broaden the debate. Perhaps the changes will not be global–because with friends like Russia, China and Pakistan, who needs enemies–but rather we will see regional shifts that provide for a stronger platform from which to advocate alternatives.
The Organization of American States (OAS) has already begun to lead this process, Last year they released the Scenarios Report, which explored possible routes to decreasing violence levels in the region, including a possible regulatory model. At the CND this year, the OAS, along with Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia and Uruguay, hosted a side event on the report and ways that member states have used it to begin a national discussion on drug policy.
Uruguay, along with many civil society organizations focused on the need to give precedence to human rights obligations over drug control strategies. That will be a key point of convergence as member states begin designing their strategy for 2016. Human rights violations can no longer be justified under the umbrella of the war on drugs. The discussion regarding reforming or reviewing the drug conventions becomes less relevant when we prioritize human rights.
At the end of the day, it is clear that drug policy reform will happen on a national (Uruguay) or local (Colorado, Washington State) level, however there are many countries that are unwilling to act alone. Regional and international discussions allow us to take a break from the status quo and see the perspectives of others. We can begin to learn from each other. And often, the conversations that happen on the other side of the world begin to plant a seed of change in our own drug policies.