The 2008 Commission on Narcotic Drugs

Vienna, March 10-14, 2008

The 51st Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) was designated as the point at which the international community would debate the progress made in the 10 years since the Political Declaration of the 1998 UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS). The 1998 UNGASS called for the eradication or significant reduction of the cultivation, supply and demand of illicit drugs. Few governments acknowledged the real policy dilemmas arising from the failure to achieve these reductions, or came forward with proposals on how the international drug control system could be improved. One of the most debated issues was a resolution on human rights and international drug control introduced by Uruguay.

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The meeting was, however, notable for many other reasons - for example the significant increase in the involvement and influence of NGOs, the continuation of the process of open acceptance by UNODC of harm reduction principles and practice, the announcement by the Bolivian government of their intention to request the declassification of coca leaf within the drug control conventions, some extraordinary exchanges on the subject of drug control and human rights, and the open challenges made by many governments to the positions and working practices of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB).

In terms of the 10 year review, delegates at least agreed on a process for the discussion and development of text and materials to be placed in front of the high-level political meeting that will be held in March 2009, and that will agree the way forward for the UN drug control system.

The main conclusions were: 

The 2008 Commission on Narcotic Drugs once again demonstrated all of the substantive and procedural flaws that have previously been described in IDPC documents. In the context of the current review of the UN drug control framework, and the process of wider UN reform that seeks greater system-wide cohesion, now is surely the time to consider some changes to its method of operation. The IDPC will be bringing forward some proposals in this regard in the coming months. Notwithstanding the frustrations inherent in the process, the 2008 meeting did include some important steps forward in the development of a drug control system that is more balanced and ‘fit for purpose’:

  • A harm reduction approach to the prevention of HIV ? infection amongst drug users has, for the first year, been explicitly and unequivocally supported by UNODC. Moreover, the official report of the CND included an unprecedented acknowledgment that ‘several countries now felt that harm reduction is an integral part of global drug policy and that there is a growing body of evidence to support its effectiveness’. More specifically, there was mention of ‘disagreement’ of several member states with the fact that the INCB considered consumption rooms in violation of the treaties, and a mention that ‘some countries’ appreciated the recommendations coming from the stakeholders meeting on HIV/AIDS the week before the CND (these were the meeting recommendations, clearly promoting harm reduction, that were so hotly debated in the Committee of the Whole).
  • The INCB was put under repeated pressure to improve its ? methods of operation, and to demonstrate the evidence base and argumentation behind its positions and statements. In contrast to previous years, the INCB Chairman was forced to take a defensive and conciliatory position in the face of (in diplomatic terms) clear and unambiguous dissatisfaction from several member states. The lack of transparency in INCB activities has also been sustained to some extent by governments’ unwillingness to publish correspondence with the INCB. In recent years, the UK government has broken with this convention, and the Dutch parliament has recently resolved to do the same. If others follow, the work of the INCB will be open to more scrutiny, which can only improve its quality.
  • The implications of the human rights standards and obligations ? of UN member states, in terms of drug control, were aired meaningfully at the CND for the first time, stimulated by the INCB report, NGO activity, and a resolution tabled on the subject. The debates around that resolution also showed the wide divergence of views between member states on an issue that is crucial to effective drug policy. While many countries spoke in support of the concept of closer cohesion between the UN human rights and drug control agencies, several others felt threatened by the idea that drug control should be constrained by consideration of the human rights of users. This debate exposed a shocking lack of understanding amongst some delegations of their obligations under the UN Charter and the various human rights treaties. This issue is sure to be returned to in the coming months and years.
  • Finally, (and despite the general lack of a full and objective ? review of progress since 1998, and challenges for the future of drug control, at the CND) there are signs that the UNODC may be willing to lead the debate in a more constructive manner. Antonio Maria Costa’s speech to the plenary, and the related conference room paper on which it was based, contained some brave attempts to engage with the real dilemmas facing policymakers as they consider the way forward – 50 years of energetic implementation of global drug control have failed to halt the expansion of the illegal market; at best, a stabilisation or ‘containment’ of the scale of the market in recent years can be claimed; there have been several ‘unintended consequences’ of the implementation of drug control that must be resolved; and new challenges, unforeseen when the conventions were conceived, need to be given priority. Taking this lead, we hope that the international community can indeed agree on a balanced and evidence-based approach to drug policy from 2009 onwards – the alternative is continually widening polarisation between differing views that can only lead to a fragmentation of the whole system.