Unmuted Speech Tells New Drug Policy Story at UNGASS 2016

World drug policy is changing, a sea change evident in the speeches and discourse at the UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem held in New York between April 19 and 21st. The fact that the UNGASS was even held this year at all, given that the next scheduled date is 2019, was a triumph in itself, achieved by the persistence of the delegations of Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala in Vienna at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, and at UN Headquarters itself. The real political drama that has played itself out at the CND in the past few years has been that of the Latin American countries challenging the US, whose weakened hegemony in dictating the terms of the global war on drugs, has left a leadership vacuum at the top. Violence -- which has ruled the drug war until now -- is mute, as Hannah Arendt has said, and speech is political. UNGASS was the stage for many political speeches that defined the new global reality.

It's a case of the young bulls (figuratively since most of the senior diplomats are about my age --- late 50s) challenging the old order. U.S. state legalisation and regulation of cannabis for both medical and recreational purposes, as well as the so-called "opioid addiction crisis," and mass incarceration of young men and women of colour has delegitimized the old drug warrior order. The US has proven quite conclusively that it cannot solve its domestic drug problem through coercion, and is trying new strategies, under the leadership of state legislatures and civil society organisations, among others.

The Latin American countries, long the victims of drug war colonialism that displaces violence generated by the US and European hunger for psychoactive substances other than alcohol, onto the usually non drug consuming communities of the global south, have taken the political lead on the global stage.

A generation now used to democracy, civic participation and human rights, after decades of (often U.S. backed) dictatorship, is demanding that the world chart a new drug policy course to minimise the damage to their societies and to vulnerable "affected communities" such as people who use drugs problematically, small-scale producers, patients who need controlled medicines, incarcerated women, and children affected by the drug trade. The ghosts of the tens of thousands of people killed in Mexico, Central America, and Colombia as a result of the drug trade, and those executed or who have died in compulsory detention or from AIDS, inform this iteration of the debate. Speeches on the plenary floor represented the absent voices of the victims of the drug war.

The public rhetoric at the UNGASS plenaries and roundtables, presided over by panels of (largely male!) experts (there are plenty of female experts, and the World Drug Problem will not be solved by men alone!) and the more private speech at the side events hosted by UN agencies and member states, clearly favoured situating global and national drug policy within the synergistic framework of the Sustainable Development Goals.

This requires cross-sector collaboration between ministries, agencies, civil society, and the private sector. Such collaborations have no institutional precedent. The vision of solving the world drug problem through institutional re-tooling calls for creativity and leadership. This energy and leadership will largely come from structured interactions with civil society, a pool of talent that the more authentically democratic member states are starting to tap. Member states that shun civil society, fearing its disruptive potential to established power elites, are less likely to support creative and sustainable responses to the World Drug Problem.

Hence the fragmentation what used to be known as the old global drug policy consensus, forged by the US and USSR during the post-War period through the first decade of the twentieth century. Once the Cold War was over and that partnership of superpowers disintegrated, all bets were off, and what was a multi-polar world shattered into fragile regional and ideological alliances. Those regional alliances were very much in evidence at UNGASS, global civil society was powerful, and unified over key issues such as the death penalty, access to controlled medicines, and the need for a public health approach to drug policy. Civil society colleagues who defined a "successful" UNGASS as one that produced a unanimous rejection of the concept of a "society free of drugs" were doomed to disappointment. However, important lines were drawn and gauntlets thrown down. The overall success of the meeting was evident in the clarity of public statements made by individuals and member states, backed up by substantial constituencies and regional alliances.

World Drug Policy as we know it has changed, following the laws of quantum mechanics and systems biology, which state that even a small, definitive variations can cause large changes within the macro-system. Now it is the job of global civil society to support the countries already enacting change -- not waiting for any CND say so -- because only by "being the change we want to see" will drug policy change at the national or global level.

With the exception of rare visionary leaders, policymakers are only as strong as the pressure they are getting from their constituents or presidents, The countries that want to lead the change will only be able to do so with the support of their citizens, who will have to adjust to new ways of perceiving and responding to the use of controlled substances within society. Building the new paradigm well calls for consultation, inclusion, and communication between people who are not normally in contact. The vision of a society free of drugs, which doesn't have universal support anyway, is giving way to a vision of societies that know how to integrate and care for people who use drugs problematically according to their own norms, developing policies to address the vulnerabilities that both cause and result from problematic use. Much easier said than done, but most countries and speakers at UNGASS recognised that is the work ahead. Major progress IMHO.