The Global Commission: breaking the Vienna Consensus

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

globcomTNI has been closely involved with the Global Commission on Drug Policy which presented its report in New York on June 2. Some years ago we published a report, entitled Cracks in the Vienna Consensus in which we argued that cracks were appearing in the supposedly universal model under the UN treaty system. In reality, the global system is based on a highly fragile consensus of Vienna, where the UN drug control system is headquartered, and the painstaking negotiations every year to keep up the appearance of unity have become the symbol of paralysis and frustration.

The failure to counter the ever-growing problems related to illicit drugs has led countries to question the validity of current policies and to experiment with approaches less driven by the U.S.-inspired ideology of “zero tolerance” and more rooted in pragmatism. Calls for decriminalisation, harm reduction, legal regulation of cannabis, and embedding human rights principles in drug control are increasing ever more. The report of the Global Commission is yet a new powerful expression of the widespread discontent.

The Commission successfully avoided the unhelpful dichotomy between prohibition and legalization which has paralysed the debate on international drug control for decades, calling to break the taboo on an open and honest debate and to take serious action now to reform failing drug control strategies. A paradigm shift that TNI has advocated for many years and tried to introduce into the 10-year evaluation of the 1998 UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the drugs problem .

Over the last decade rapidly widening ‘cracks in the Vienna consensus’ began to split global agreement on drug control policies. The fact that a group of highly respected world leaders calls for such a radical change of course, gives hope for the years to come. In one of the working papers for the Global Commission’s meeting in Geneva earlier this year, “The development of international drug control: lessons learned and strategic challenges for the future”, I further elaborated and updated TNIs view on the current deadlock and tried to formulate some pragmatic and feasible steps to take.  

The cracks are widening more and more and may well be approaching a breaking point. The report of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, predecessor of the current Global Commission, had a huge media impact in the region at the time and strengthened the trend of a shifting political climate in which drug policy changes could flourish. In countries like Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Uruguay and Bolivia different types of proposals have been developed, though in several cases still meeting considerable domestic opposition that have so far paralysed the implementation of actual drug law reforms. But the discussions are ongoing.

The Global Commission will hopefully shift the terrain further, now not only in Latin America but also in the United States, Europe, the whole world, and at the UN level. Compared with the Latin American report, the Global Commission comes with an even more nuanced and better-argued report, and with more precise and more radical recommendations. Beyond harm reduction and decriminalisation for drug users, the report also supports legal regulation for the cannabis market, a review of the classification of cannabis and coca leaf, respect for indigenous practices such as coca chewing, alternative livelihoods for small farmers instead of eradication, alternative sentences instead of prison for small-scale minor offenders such as street dealers and mules, refocusing law enforcement to prioritise the reduction of violence, and a review and modernisation of the UN drug control conventions. The initial responses in the media are overwhelmingly positive, while drug control officials in office – as expected – react either in silence, cool, vaguely dismissive or outright hostile.

As we know from our informal dialogues many government officials do have serious doubts about current drug control strategies and there are many who applaud – off the record – wholeheartedly the conclusions of the Global Commission. The hope is that with the public backing by such prominent world leaders, policy makers now will feel more secure to express their honest opinions. More political courage is desperately needed to challenge outdated paradigms, to table and discuss reform proposals and to experiment in practice with alternative approaches.

In 2012, the world will commemorate a century of international drug control since the International Opium Convention was signed in 1912 in The Hague. Fifty years ago, the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs shifted the focus to a more prohibitionist approach, introduced obligations to criminalize unlicensed production and trade, extended the pre-existing control regime to the cultivation of cannabis, opium poppy and the coca leaf, and forced countries to abolish their traditional uses. 

Forty years ago Nixon launched the ‘war on drugs’ and the control system started to degenerate into a war on users, farmers and petty traders. The excessive negative consequences and negligible effectiveness have now been broadly acknowledged and a process of de-escalation is in full motion in many places. Over the last decade widening cracks have already begun to split global drug control consensus. Let’s hope that the Global Commission contributes to breaking the Vienna consensus and to open the door for much-needed reforms along the lines of their recommendations, and based on the many lessons learned over the past century.

The proposals of the Commission are a good starting point, including the appeal to the UN to ensure coherence among UN agencies, policies and conventions. Getting drug policy right is one of the key policy challenges of our time, according to their report, and requires the involvement of all UN agencies, not just the ones desperately trying to keep the Vienna consensus alive.