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Sede de las Naciones Unidas, en Viena, donde tuvo lugar la CND 67. |

The rifts in prohibition at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs

The CND67 showed us a more consolidated rupture in the prohibition system, a crack through which perhaps the light of reform can shine.

Por: March 29, 2024

The destinies of drug prohibition are defined in international spaces that have been trapped in a circular inertia, a recycling of failure, for more than 60 years. The Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), the political decision-making body of the international drug control system, is one of them, and holds its annual session every March at the Vienna International Center (VIC), the United Nations headquarters in Austria.

The VIC and the CND are strange and confusing spaces. The VIC is a huge complex on the banks of the Danube, built in the 1970s. Its semicircular shape makes it very easy to get lost in the corridors: lost among the circuits of atomic energy, criminal policy and drug policy, the three agendas that are woven from there. The CND is equally strange. Composed of 53 Member States, they spend every March distancing themselves more and more on what the world needs from drug policy, between two extremes that give a lot of weight to the word extreme: the death penalty for those who consume or traffic drugs or legal regulation of all currently illicit substances.

The 67th version of the CND had a different element than the regular Commissions every March, because in 2024 we are halfway through the commitments of the 2019 Ministerial Declaration, and in this CND a high-level ministerial segment was added to review progress on those commitments. In other words, this round of the CND should result in an in-depth review of how we have made progress – or not – in reducing the supply of drugs, providing treatment to those who need it, and generating viable income alternatives for those involved in illicit economies, among others.

The outcome document was disappointing: there was no critical review, and it is clear that while many countries are moving away from heavy-handed drug policies, recognizing the failure of repressive measures, very few dare to put this on paper. As this IDPC report demonstrates, and according to figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime itself, drug markets have expanded, drug risks have increased, and drug policy strategies are threatening principles of the multilateral system such as peace, democracy and human rights. The CND and the corridors of the VIC seem largely indifferent to this dismal failure.

But there are winds of change, tiny cracks through which light seems to be entering. Following the official adoption of the outcome document, a group of 62 countries, led by Colombia, read a joint statement that not only underscored that there is backsliding and that the system must be modernized to improve, but also committed to review and evaluate the international drug control system, to ensure that weaknesses in its implementation are improved and that all efforts are aimed at protecting the health and welfare of all humankind. Amid all the diplomatic jargon, this means that 62 states, with varying degrees of commitment, are ready to break the system apart, subject it to scrutiny, and generate new and better models for drug control.

The opportunity is there. If the diplomatic effort in Vienna and elsewhere continues at this pace, with pressure from an increasingly organized and powerful civil society, we can imagine that a critical review of prohibition will begin within the United Nations. This includes, to imagine a few ways, the creation of an independent evaluation mechanism of the control system as well as a mandate on human rights and drug policy in Geneva, and the relocation of UNODC funds to other agencies that have a mandate on development, environment and human rights.

The truth is that Vienna, despite going in self-repeating circles, sometimes takes surprising turns. These turns leave us with cracks that, if well exploited, can put us on a decisive path to change a system that has been a source of suffering, violence and discrimination. And civil society has a fundamental role to play in this path. International networks and processes from social and grassroots organizations in hundreds of countries are ready to continue to show the costs of prohibition and propose other ways of relating to drugs. For that, we also count on the voices of those States that dare to show the cracks in the system, trusting that it is not a swing of political emotion of the moment, but the beginning of a process that breaks the prohibition.

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