What comes next?

Post-UNGASS options for 2019/2020
November 2016

idpc-post-ungassThe UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs – held in New York in April 2016 – was hailed as an opportunity for the international community ‘to conduct a wide-ranging and open debate that considers all options’. Although the UNGASS was characterised by many shortcomings and disappointments, it was nonetheless a critical moment for global drug policy reform. Now that the dust has settled, one serious omission from the proces has become increasingly apparent – the fact that nothing was decided or proposed for the next important UN moment for drug policy in 2019.

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The 2016 UNGASS Outcome Document may not have been the truly open assessment that was envisaged by Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala when they called for the UNGASS in 2012, but it does include some progressive language on several key issues such as human rights, development, gender, proportionate sentencing, access to controlled medicines and alternatives to punishment. It was positive that certain harm reduction interventions were explicitly mentioned such as overdose prevention (naloxone) and medication-assisted treatment, but unfortunatethat the term itself once again did not survive the negotiations.

The next opportunity to build on progress made at the UNGASS will be in 2019 when the existing Political Declaration and Plan of Action are up for review. At present, there is nothing formally agreed about what will happen in 2019: it is essentially an open book. This paper outlines some of the key issues and possible scenarios for 2019/2020, drawing lessons from the process that was agreed in 2008 and 2009 when a Political Declaration on drugs was last up for renewal.


Despite mixed emotions among many stakeholders and commentators, the 2016 UNGASS on drugs has definitely moved the debate forward. But, in UN terms, the next major international drug policy event is just around the corner, and preparations will need to start now. At present, there is nothing formally agreed to define what will happen in 2019 or 2020 when the existing Political Declaration and Plan of Action are up for review and/or renewal. In this sense, it is an open book. Conversely, however, in the absence of a well-coordinated strategy and a clearly articulated vision of what 2019/2020 could look like, opportunities could very easily be ended early in the process by seemingly procedural and bureaucratic decisions. Member states may even agree to abandon the idea of negotiating a new political document already so soon after the UNGASS, or to simply extend the existing agreement in a diplomatic manoeuvre.

As we have attempted to show in this briefing note, there are useful precedents to be drawn – both from previous UN drugs fora and from other parts of the UN. These include: the separation of evaluation, reflection and negotiation stages by the CND in 2008 and 2009; the establishment of thematic expert working groups to explore key issues and tensions; the use of the expanded structure of the UNGASS Outcome Document; and the appointment of a Special Advisor by the UN Secretary General to oversee the process and ensure UN system-wide coherence. These would help ensure a more open, inclusive and engaging process that will harmonise global drug policy guidelines and norms with the broader UN principles of human rights, health, security and development.


Back in April 2015, IDPC’s members around the world coalesced around a set of expectations from the UNGASS on drugs:

1. Ensure an open and inclusive debate: properly and honestly assessing the successes and failures of global drug policies, in a format that includes all UN agencies, scientists and researchers, civil society and those most affected by drug policies

2. Re-set the objectives of drug policies: moving away from the objective of achieving a drug-free world, towards identifying how the international drug control regime contributes to broader UN objectives such as public health, human security, social and economic development, and human rights

3. Support policy experimentation and innovation: acknowledging the different approaches being used, including cannabis and coca regulation in some jurisdictions, and creating space for countries to explore these options

4. End the criminalisation of the most affected populations and ensure proportionality for all drug offences, which includes the abolition of the death penalty, corporal punishment, compulsory detention and other human rights violations

5. Commit to the harm reduction approach: supporting the scale-up and funding of harm reduction services, the provision of which is a core obligation of governments to meet international human rights obligations as well as Goal 3 of the Sustainable Development Goals and articles 43 and 46 of the 2016 Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS.

Although none of these were fully achieved at the UNGASS in April 2016, some progress was made against all of them. Yet they remain as relevant for 2019/2020 as ever before, and many of the processes and options outlined above can help to achieve these goals, or at least to ensure that they are on the table.