The Frustratingly Nuanced United Nations

The United Nations is notorious the world over for talking an awful lot while achieving very little. If there is one thing I can take away from my week spent in Vienna at the United Nations Conference on Narcotic Drugs it’s that this analysis is far more accurate than any of us may have appreciated. The level of bureaucracy is in no way conducive to making actual progress and the needlessly drawn out procedures and negotiations lead to any resolutions being so watered-down that by the time there is an agreement on them they are all but useless in terms of real world application. The lengths that civil society and youth groups such as mine, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, have to go to in order to be allowed to sit at these tables is astonishing and the influence we have minute. In spite of all this, I have just had the most rewarding and motivational week of my life.

UNCND is an annual United Nations Conference held in Vienna where delegations from the 53 member States, along with delegations from non-CND member countries as well as civil society groups, come together to attempt to achieve a number of things. Your focus of the week can change drastically depending which of the above groups you are representing. Member states can propose resolutions which attempt to shape the guidelines for the UN’s approach to tackling the ‘scourge of drugs’, for example, this year, Pakistan tabled a resolution to promote the prevention of drug use in educational settings. The wording of these resolutions is discussed endlessly in both formal and informal settings, as with everything in politics the real business happens behind closed doors, with pint in hand. When the Committee finally decides to agree on whether crucial things such as whether to use ‘drugs users’ or ‘people who use drugs’, these resolutions are then voted on and implemented.

While these negotiations can last a full week, some of the negotiations are far more simple. The voting on scheduling of new psychoactive substances took less than an hour with more than ten new substances being scheduled, mostly analogues of fentanyl or cannabinoids. The ease and pace with which these substances are scheduled can be attributed to one thing: it simply does not affect the people voting. Arguing over the inclusion of a single word or sentence drags on endlessly because the people voting on the wording will be the ones dealing with the consequences. They are the ones who will be implementing these new policies. They are not the drug users who are affected by the policies they are implementing.

One phrase will remain prominent in my memory of my first trip to CND and that is delegations using the phrase ‘we can live with that’ when voicing that they can accept the change in the wording of a resolution proposed by another member state. The Government of Canada used this phrase seemingly endlessly during their resolution to promote removing stigma as a barrier to people who use drugs seeking treatment. The cruel irony of the Government of Canada, currently in the midst of one of the worst opioid crisis we have ever seen, saying they ‘can live with’ compromising on these resolutions when it was reported that over 1,420 people died from overdose Vancouver alone last year is apparently not obvious to them, but was certainly not lost on other people present in the building.

The most progressive aspect of these main discussions and speeches was the delegation speaking on behalf of the EU condemned the use of the death penalty for non-violent drug offences. When even condemning the use of capital punishment is deemed highly controversial, it is clear we have a long way to go before the delegations begin to grasp what truly needs to be done to help drug users. It is something most people reading this would surely count as a bare minimum expectation for the United Nations, the guiding light of human rights across the globe, to uphold.

The one place the incessant conservative views are finally silenced is when NGOs and civil society groups are able to have their voices heard at ‘side-events’. These are smaller events that can be organised by any group with a presence at CND. Ranging from Russia bragging about how fantastically they are tackling the problem of people who use drugs in their country, to an event discussing and condemning the extra-judicial killings in the Philippines. These events are absolutely vital to break into the echo chamber that is the prohibitionist United Nations and attempt to challenge their perspective on drugs.

The frustration that can be felt even at these events can become crippling as you listen to groups advocating for ‘A Drug Free America’ cite statistics from The American Medical Journal in the 1990 (yes, nearly 30 years ago) to advocate essentially for the dismissal of anyone who has recently used, or regularly uses drugs, from workplaces across America. The importance of not allowing these kind of campaigns to go unchallenged cannot be understated. Even though I can say with almost absolute certainty I did not change a single person’s mind this week, confronting these people and opening up a discussion at least shows that there are people who care passionately about these issues with opposing views. On many occasions me and my colleagues discussed our own drug use with them, and how the policies they are advocating for directly affect us and our close friends and family. The shock seen in the room when delegations discover that we are these people who use drugs they hear so much about, we are ‘the scourge of drugs’ they hear so much about, is astonishing. The detachment between the policy makers and the people affected needs to be closed and the best way to do that is through, admittedly limited, discourse at events like this.

The War on Drugs has been a resounding failure. As one of my colleagues from the Asian Network of People Who Use Drugs pointed out, after 61 years of the UN hosting CND, nothing has happened. Drugs are more prevalent than ever and are being produced in new forms quicker than the UN can even keep up with. Several hundred substances are now scheduled on the controlled substances list by the UN, all of which can still be accessed globally whether through a street dealer or the dark web. The United Nations could not even stop these drugs from being smuggled into the United Nations this past week. The prospect that they could stop their production and consumption entirely is laughable.


Ailish Breannan – Students for Sensible Drug Policy

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