Cracks in the Consensus: UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs 2016

by Zara Snapp*



For the past 100 years, drug prohibition has been defended around the world (with a few exceptions), demonstrating a so-called “consensus” that is based on the three primary drug control treaties[1], written in 1961, 1971 and 1988. It has only been in the last years that member states have openly defied these international instruments, advocating on the grounds of cultural importance, in the case of Bolivia and the coca leaf,[2]and respecting human rights, as in the case of Uruguay and the legal regulation of cannabis[3].


Perhaps the biggest change has come from the guardians of the current drug control system—the United States—which has historically advocated for prohibition, a focus on supply reduction and preserving its authority to support wars around the world under the justification of drug control. And yet, that authority appears to be rapidly shrinking, with four US states (as of now) regulating cannabis for adult, recreational use and 23 other states allowing for medical cannabis use. A majority of US voters support regulating cannabis for adult use, and the federal government has not been able to stymie that momentum. While the international discourse reflects a respect for the treaties and only moderate reforms, internal changes have shown that a new paradigm is possible.


In 2012, countries in Latin America, specifically Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala, requested that the United Nations host a General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs from April 19-21, 2016. These member states advocated for the meeting to take place sooner than expected, citing an urgency due to levels of violence and a lack of clear evaluation of the current strategy. Latin America has been at the forefront of implementing US-led policies and evaluation has shown it to be ineffective in curbing production, trafficking or use.


The light is beginning to show through the cracks of the prohibitionist regime. The war on drugs (or drug trafficking) was launched in Mexico in 2006, under the leadership of then-President Felipe Calderon, and with the monetary and technical support of the United States. The results have been devastating: more than 150,000 people killed, more than 30,000 people disappeared, and many more displaced due to the violence[4]. Behind each of these numbers, lies a person, with a story, a family and a community that feels the pain of that loss. And yet, a militarized strategy that rules with violence and which has been accused of numerous human rights violations continues to be the law of the land, although the leadership is now in the hands of current President Enrique Peña Nieto. The importance of upholding a controlled image has become the official public discourse within his administration, while the reality is that the numbers of deaths and disappearances attributed to the fight against organized crime continue to rise.


Thus, it came as a surprise to Mexican civil society when the country joined forces with Colombia and Guatemala to call for the UNGASS and complement it with a discourse that has been based in promoting human rights, health and new approaches at the United Nations. Over the past two years, on the international stage, Mexico has played an important role in calling for an open, honest and transparent debate at the UN. They have gone up against countries like Russia and China to advocate for civil society presence and, regionally, they have defended this posture against Cuba, Peru and Chile. Although this fresh discourse from Mexico is a welcome change for reform advocates, Mexico has not implemented any domestic reforms, which only encourages skepticism among the general population within the country. Between the US defending the drug control treaties, states openly defying these, and Mexico pushing for human rights, health and reducing social harms while waging a war, the United Nations Special Session is sure to be full of surprises. The question is: will anything have changed on April 22, 2016?


*Zara Snapp was born in Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, grew up in the United States and is currently based in Mexico City. She has worked on varying social issues for the past 15 years, including drug policy reform, human rights, reproductive rights, civic engagement and judicial reform. Zara currently collaborates with the Global Commission for Drug Policy as the policy and communications officer and is a member of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity.


[1] Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971 and the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988. http://www.unodc.org/unodc/treaties/[2] Bolivia wins a rightful victory on the coca leaf. Transnational Institute. https://www.tni.org/en/pressrelease/bolivia-wins-rightful-victory-coca-leaf[3] Uruguay stands up to the UN on marijuana legalization. PanAmPost. http://panampost.com/panam-staff/2015/06/29/uruguay-stands-up-to-un-on-marijuana-legalization/[4] Official estimates vary between 120,000-150,000 people killed during the Calderon administration. At one point, they stopped providing the public with the numbers for “public security” purposes. More than 22,000 people were killed in Mexico 2013, however it is unclear how many were related to drug-war violence.

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