Round Table: UNGASS… And now what?

The process leading up to UNGASS 2016 reflected small but valuable advances: the use of human rights language, proportionality in penalties, greater gender perspective, access to controlled medicines and incorporating other UN agencies into the discussion. Also evident was a lack of consensus, reflecting the failures of the prevailing system and the important role played by civil society in this journey. However, in the international drug control system, no meaningful reforms have been produced. What challenges does this scenario present us with? Is the absence of consensus a starting for point for a new consensus? Which partnerships could be strengthened in anticipation of the high-level meeting of 2019?

Martin Jelsma, an international drug policy specialist from the Transnational Institute (TNI) in the Netherlands, reflected that “there are some countries that have challenged the drug treaties system, such as Uruguay and its regulated cannabis market, or Bolivia with the coca plant.” He affirmed that “What happened in UNGASS was a reaffirmation of treaties, since the agenda was completely limited from the start,” adding, however, that “there were a few advances after heavy negotiation on issues such as public health, access to controlled medicines and the cultural importance of traditional uses of drugs.”

Claudia Salcedo Vásquez, an official of the Department of International Affairs of the Office of Drug Policy of the Colombian Ministry of Justice, said that “the positions should move towards one another in order to approach a new global consensus on drug policy.” “The public health focus and the gender perspective have been introduced to the document, but issues such as non-medicinal cannabis use have been left out.” For this official, “the challenge after UNGASS, not just for Colombia, is to move from words to practice with the adoption of new actions that reflect what is said at UNGASS, to demonstrate that these actions exist and they work.”

“In the international realm there are opportunities. The Organization of American States signed the 2016-2020 Action Plan, which incorporated public health, human rights and gender approaches. The development of international experiences is also a space that can be used to implement evidence-based programs,” said Salcedo Vázquez.

“Projects, programs and policies that are proven to be efficient need to be promoted and made visible, such as comprehensive interventions around drug-dealing, regulation of drug markets, and implementation of harm reduction programs in various countries,” she said.

For Yaw Akrasi-Sarpong, Executive Secretary of the Board of Narcotics Control of the Ministry of the Interior of Ghana, UNGASS is simply a process, and it will not end in 2019 because it is a historic battle of elitism, prohibitionist narrative and powerful forces.” The African representative affirmed that “Africa has the most consistent experience in failed drug policies.” “I want to acknowledge the advances that have been made with regards to drug policy in Latin America.” He also noted that “civil society organizations are key to the reform process. UNGASS could not have been possible if it were not for the strength of civil society cracking and breaking barriers.” Finally the Ghanaian official understands that “we are following a negative narrative. We are talking about cocaine and cannabis, but the science has shown that alcohol and tobacco cause more deaths a year than cocaine. We need to change the narrative, and put more emphasis on the benefits that regulation could bring.”

Speaking last was Diederik Lohman, Associate Director of the Division of Health and Human Rights of Human Rights Watch, who highlighted the role of civil society in drug policy. The objectives of the civil society in each country have to be concrete, specific and measurable, and they must be of importance to the ultimate goal of protecting public health against the risks of drug use because, although we tried, we failed to get it included into the UNGASS outcomes document. “The 2019 Declaration is an opportunity to include all of this, and we will achieve it,” he said.

Ernesto Cortés, Executive Director of the Costa Rican Association for the Study and Intervention in Drugs, moderated the table.