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Hollowed out: What UNGASS 2016 will tell us about the Global drug regime

Por Jean Daudelin*



Next week, the United Nations will hold a special general assembly on drug policy. Liberalizers hope that it will be an opportunity to put harm reduction first and to push aside the prohibitionist agenda: the beginning of the end for the disastrous “War on Drugs” of the last 40 years. Most drug use would at least be decriminalized, research on the health effects—positive and negative—of currently illegal drugs would be facilitated, and problematic use of cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, LSD or amphetamine would be seen, along with Fentanyl—as a health and social problem, instead of a crime. Overall it would be a great boon for public health and to some extent public safety too.

But such a sharp change at the international level will not happen, no at UNGASS and not in the months and years that will follow it.

The outcome of the special assembly will be much fuzzier. There will be nice words about the need for demand reduction and treatment, for a more humane approach to prohibition and more development alternatives for the poor peasants that, from Afghanistan to the Andes, feed the apparently insatiable thirst of the world for psychotropic drugs. A few countries will probably announce a significant liberalization of their drug regime, with Canada, in particular, joining Uruguay as a fully liberalized cannabis market. But such liberalization will take place in the absence of changes to the treaties that have enshrined global drug prohibition. Whatever Canada and Uruguay say, and whatever California, Washington State or, soon enough, New York State and even the US government do, their soft on drugs policies will violate the liberalizers’ international commitments. As states are typically reluctant to withdraw from existing regime, preferring instead to change them from the inside, none will probably make the jump (though I honestly hope that someone does).

After decades of a policy that scholarship has shown to have been an unmitigated disaster, why is no real change in the offing, especially now that the US, the face and voice of that policy, is no longer so sure that fighting drug use with soldiers, police and jails is such a great idea?

Well, because contrary to public—and even scholarly perception–the War on Drugs has long been very popular among most the world’s governments: Washington was just riding a big wave it had not created. What UNGASS 2016 will make clear is that a majority of non-Western countries—and I include Latin America in the West—are rabidly opposed to any liberalization of the global drug regime. From Russia and China to Iran, Saudi Arabia and Southeast Asia, the war on drugs has lost none of its shine, and these countries will make sure that the global rules that underlie it stay put. The UN Organizaiton on Drugs and Crime, deeply invested in the prohibitionist endeavour, won’t have to change its stance at all.

In practice, the world will be divided between the more or less soft liberalism of the West—i.e. the Americas, from North to South, and Europe—, where various forms of decriminalization and legalization will continue to gain ground, and the mano dura of most of the Rest, where crackdown on users, incarceration and the death penalty will continue to hold sway.

For liberalizers, this should nonetheless be seen as progress. The Rest can block changes to the treaties, but it doesn’t have the means to prevent the West from violating them. In fact, without as much American money (unless some wacko gets to the White House—not impossible—or someone (hello Moscow, hello Beijing?) takes up the slack—transnational investment in the prohibition regime may soon almost vanish. At least, prohibitionists will be left mostly to their own means.

I am not sure that any hollowing out of an international regime is really good news for global governance, but global health in at least some countries cannot but benefit from the demise—however informal—of an absurd contraption that, over the years, has proven to be so deadly for so many.


* Doutor em Ciência Política (Université Laval). Desde 2002 é Professor Associado na Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University. Tem experiência em Relações Internacionais das Américas, Política Externa Brasileira, Políticas de Drogas, Mercados Ilegais e Violência. É pesquisador do Núcleo de Estudos em Política Comparada e Relações Internacionais (NEPI/UFPE) e do Núcleo de Estudos e Pesquisas em Criminalidade, Violência e Políticas Públicas de Segurança.


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