IPI Panel: Focus on Prevention, Not Repression, Needed in Response to Drug Problem

The international response to the world drug crisis has given disproportional attention to repression rather than prevention. This view was expressed by several participants at an IPI policy forum convened on July 22 to discuss the upcoming United Nations General Assembly special session on the world drug problem.

“Repression is a damaging policy, since it redirects resources to military and penal solutions, instead of health and education,” said one of the panel members, Fernando Carrera, the Permanent Representative of Guatemala to the UN. “Like other aspects of public policy, we should address drug policy by outcome – learning from experience, and not from dogmas.”

The IPI meeting, co-organized with the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum (CPPF), was held to prepare for the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem, which will take place April 19-21, 2016.

Simone Monasebian, Director of the New York Office of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), called for a more holistic approach to the crisis at the special session with emphasis on health and well-being in order to reduce the impact on vulnerable populations and to create more alternatives to incarceration.

“UNGASS 2016 must address all the issues with the world drug problem, including human rights and sustainable development,” she said, adding that this must be done “without dropping our guard on transnational organized crime.”

The statements came at a time when an increasingly changing policy landscape at the national level is posing challenges to the current international drug control strategies, which have produced a public health crisis and mass incarceration.

At the same time, while decriminalization is taking place in many countries, panelists argued that there is too little room for the evolution of today’s legal system. Martin Jelsma, Programme Director for the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam, noted that the treaties that regulate the world drug problem do not have built-in mechanisms for review. He called the existing system “Jurassic.”

The interim session of the General Assembly is being held three years ahead of its schedule on the special request of the governments of Mexico, Guatemala, and Colombia and will present an important opportunity to issue “fair and balanced analysis on whether the existing system operating on the existing conventions is still fit for purpose,” said Senator Mark Golding, the Minister of Justice of Jamaica.

The current international legal framework, upheld by the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971, and the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988, provides some degree of flexibility for national responses, but remains rigid, he said. Sen. Golding stressed the importance of having coherent and viable policies that provide proportional and rational responses to drug problems, while keeping with the aspirations of people. As new paths of treatment are emerging in national drug policies, he said the coherence of international law is increasingly challenged.

However, while a rebalancing should take place between prevention and repression, it would be impossible to get completely rid of the law-enforcement approach, Ambassador Carrera said. Focus on the supply-side should remain, but be made more effective through relying on an evidence-based approach, he added.

Transnational organized crime is an important driver of the problem, but several of the panelists said that current efforts have come up with few solutions to reduce the profitability of this thriving business.

Providing a historical background to the development of the international legal framework, Mr. Jelsma showed how issues that led to the first UNGASS on drugs have still not been addressed. Arms control, money laundering, lack of criminal prosecution, difficulties in finding agreement on regulating financial streams with linked challenges in addressing beneficial ownerships due to deregulated markets – are all problems that still persist.

As the levels of violence that created the urgency for the original call for the first Special Session on drugs in 1990 persist, “increased shared responsibility and a more balanced approach” is needed to improve the structural response, he said.

When one question from the floor raised concern that current drug policy lumps starkly different drugs into the same basket, Ambassador Carrera agreed, saying, “The UN’s one-size-fits-all approach to drugs is outdated.”

While this is the first UNGASS to focus on drug policy since 1998, it will be the third one in history, following previous attempts which have not resulted in radical changes but rather served to reassert the established system. However, Sen. Golding expressed hope that the current international momentum would still drive through the necessary changes and reframing within the post-2015 agenda.

He concluded: “If UNGASS 2016 does not signify a move forward, it is going to be very problematic for all of us.”

The conversation was moderated by Adam Lupel, Director of Research and Publications at IPI.

Watch event: