UNGASS: UN moves closer to irrelevancy. UNGASS: UN moves closer to irrelevancy.

The UN drug meeting an elaborate charade

Victory for drug warriors, slap in face for Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala

The United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs met in April. Back in January I wrote a lengthy two-part op-ed on Mexico News Daily (which you can read here and here).


I outlined some of the history of the worldwide war on drugs and the quixotic failings of the last UNGASS in 1998, and made some predictions for the outcome of the current UNGASS.

I argued two broad points:

1. “Expect [from UNGASS] high drama, vituperative protesters, debates by all manner of punditry, impassioned speeches, the softening of drug war rhetoric, the praise of needed reforms and transition from a criminal enforcement paradigm to one based on public health and human rights[.]

“But don’t expect any significant policy shift. The vested interests in current international drug control protocols will employ whatever mendacity and legerdemain necessary to keep the current system in place.”

2. Concluding with, “UNGASS at this stage is at best little more than an international focus group or debating society, and at worst, a political theatrical production. Real change will only occur when paying audience members – the UN member nations – realize how truly bad the acting is, and walk out of the theater.”

And that is exactly how it played out.


Let’s remember too that this UNGASS was called by Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala, the three member states that have suffered more than any other nation from the global war on drugs (arguably, and depending on how one measures human suffering).

They were slapped in the face.

There were some memorable moments, to be sure. Canada shone by reaffirming her commitment to legalizing and regulating cannabis by the spring of 2017. Indonesia’s delegate was almost booed off the dais when he feebly defended his country’s death penalty for drug possession.

Britain, despite being a strict prohibitionist country, defended its “evidence-based approach” to drug control – perhaps one of the most embarrassing statements ever made by a country’s official representative, a runner up to then-Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s claim that “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country” at a 2007 Princeton University speech.

Bolivia’s Evo Morales hit it out of the park with an incredible plenary statement. Even Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto sounded lucid in a solid anti-drug war speech, calling for a change from mere prohibition to effective prevention and efficient regulation (blind birds sometimes catch worms, too).

And the “Anyone’s Child” protest by people who have lost family members to the drug war was powerfully moving.

But the belligerent defenders of the status quo – the Russian delegation – held the ground, helped by a cadre of powerful countries who still believe in the silly platitude that “if we just redouble our efforts” we’ll make progress.

Despite, of course, having spent trillions of dollars over the past 50 years on drug prohibition battles, and despite the fact that illegal drugs are more potent and cheaper that they have ever been in the course of human history.

I like pleasant surprises, but my pre-UNGASS assessment was more right than I would ever have liked.

As I predicted, it was basically an elaborate charade. The jury decided the case before hearing the evidence. The agreement, called the “outcome document,” was adopted on the very first day of the three-day summit, and except for minor details had already been negotiated in Vienna in March.

It gave lip service to “harm reduction” and emphasizing the “health and welfare of humankind.” But rhetoric is rhetoric. It left the current system in place.

This UNGASS was a victory for the drug warriors, but a pyrrhic one. Many UN member states like Mexico, Canada, Bolivia, Uruguay, Columbia and New Zealand are increasingly willing to walk away from its “outdated and broken prohibitionist ethos,” as Steve Rolles of Transform said.

(In case you’re wondering, the U.S. delegation, knowing the U.S. is in violation of international treaties due to widespread cannabis legalization while ironically at the same time being the instigator and progenitor of the global drug war, was a schizophrenic and ineffective mess.)

UN member countries like Mexico, which are the primary victims of this feckless drug war, are getting restless, itching to walk out of the stuffy theater for some fresh air. In my view, they should.

The UN is in very real danger of becoming an international irrelevancy, a “debating society” as I’ve said, and if it is unwilling to evolve, it will die.

Indeed, I believe the death rattle has already begun.

Glen Olives Thompson is a professor of North American Law at La Salle University in Chihuahua, a specialist in law and public policy and a regular contributor to Mexico News Daily. Some of his other non-academic work can be viewed at glenolives.com

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  • Three score and ten

    If Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala want the drug war to end, they will have to end it. Change the laws. Stop prosecuting addicts and spend the money on healthcare. License the cartels as pharmaceutical firms and make them pay taxes. Let the ignoramuses (ignorami?) in Washington deal with their problem themselves.

    • mrpoohead

      Absolutely – legalise the lot and impose quality control and standards. Health warning like cigarette packets. And tax it like crazy! I, thankfully, won’t be paying any tax there. Portugal has decriminalised it and society has improved – fewer in prison and less robbery to fund habits, plus help is more easily sourced as it is no longer illegal.

      • frankania

        I agree. If the drug sellers are LEGAL, then they have to supply safe products to their customers, just like beer companies, liquor companies, etc.. Stop all prohibitions for consenting adults–everywhere!

  • Donnie W. Jennings

    The war on Drugs should more target the user instead of the pusher. As long as the rich countries are willing to pay the price, poor and corrupt countries will provide the product by whatever means is necessary. The problem in the US is that more people that use drugs vote, than people that sell drugs that vote. For this reason the drugs keep flowing, because the fuel to drug trade, the end purchaser, is being allowed to continue to use his drugs with less risk of jail time or inconvenience. This will continue as long as he votes for the correct Political Party. But unfortunately, even if the Drug problem evaporated tomorrow, it would not help Mexico and many other of the Latin American countries. The corruption is so rampant in these places, that the Chaos will simply more from drugs to other areas. Actually it has already moved in large part. I now live in Guerrero, organized crime, murders, extortion etc are way past the drug stage. The sad truth is, this level of corruption has always existed in Mexico, it has just stepped up to the 21st century. As bad as the drug situation is, to blame it for Mexico’s failing and I am not suggesting that the author has done that, is very short sighted. The shady guys back in the alley, are suit and tie businessmen today running multi million dollar and higher organization with the latest and greatest technological controls. But, they still use the tried and true control method of cutting heads off, burning to death live people and assassinating families of non-conformers or business rivals.

    • PintorEnMexico

      Ridiculous prohibitions need disobeying, like the Volstead Act. War on users has never worked for long. If by “war” you mean treatment and attacking the conditions that give rise to addiction, then I’ll enlist.

      • Donnie W. Jennings

        Stop the demand for drugs and then there will be no supply! I am all for treatment, but I feel the decriminalizing or making usage misdemeanors is the wrong direction. Some folks are more prong to addictive usage of many things than other folks, I have no idea how you address DNA make up with treatment. I think this concept has more to do with getting votes than anything else. In the end, both the usage and sale should be against the law OR they should not. One being more or less not against the law, while the other is against the law seems ridicules to me.

        • PintorEnMexico

          Agreed. I vote not for both. Lots of genetic illnesses are treatable. The degree to which genetics cause addictions is arguable. Approximately 200,000 military personnel used heroine in Vietnam at war’s end. Approximately 95% of them stopped using when they left the hellish conditions that gave rise to their use.

  • Doña Barola

    Good heavens, why is the author so indignant since he knew it was going to happen ahead of time. Until a replacement business is found for those trillions a year spent on drug enforcement, of course a solution will not be found. There are simply too many people and too many spinoff businesses who would all lose too much money. Instead, why not come up with a replacement business that can spend that kind of money and you may see more results on the drug front.
    I suggest funding those badly neglected scientific research projects and space programs on the off chance they will provide a better return on investment than the current business of drugs. 🙂

  • James Smith

    i now understand your strategy, glen. you hope to win the argument by boring everyone to tears with your ad nauseum sophistry. you must get paid by the word.

    • Marlin

      Ey Jimmy how is the anti-Mexico campaign going, failing? 🙂

  • alance

    This is additional proof that the UN is a totally worthless and dangerous organization that ignores human rights and favors the criminal elites. The UN engaged in reckless negligence and misconduct bringing cholera to Haiti after the 2010 eartquake from Nepalese peacekeepers.

  • James Smith

    er…marlin…no anti mexico campaign in process. just personal criticism of imbeciles and corrupt government sycophants paid to post defense of the nondefensible on this site.

    • claud

      wait, James is whining cause glen was critical of the UN meeting?
      sorry, i got lost in his rhetoric while he called out someone elses rhetoric.

      • James Smith

        you obviously got lost in this world long before reading my comment.

  • David Nichols

    As long as the UN Security Council is the only body within the UN that can issue binding resolutions upon member nations, and as long as any one of the five permanent members can veto any resolution made, there will be no substantative change is the status quo…
    Glen is correct, the US is a de facto irrelevancie.

  • jaysimkin

    The foundational flaw in the case for legalisation of single-dose-lethal drugs (heroin, cocaine, and synthetic analogues) is that traffickers will quietly retire. They won’t. They’ll find other things to traffic. Thus, when the US re-legalised the sale of alcoholic drinks in 1933, the gangsters – who had made fortunes by making and/or importing alcohol – moved on to other things, e.g., cocaine, opium, etc. As legalisation of cannabis has spread in the US and taken the profits from producing and trafficking cannabis, drug traiffickers have turned to other drugs.

    The “war on drugs” is a sham, because the goal is to arrest and try drug-traffickers, not to kill them. The “war on terrorists” is only less a sham, but at least bona fide terrorists are hunted and killed. I’d take seriously the term “war on terror” if – when Taliban leaders met in Quetta, Pakistan to choose a new leader – that building wherein they met had been bombed.

    War has become “a game”, rather than as a means of improving the world by getting rid of murderers and other evil-doers. Those, who traffick drugs, are murderers. They should be hunted to annihiliation. For those, who claim this is impossible should be guided by our grandparents’ war of annihilation against the Nazis. By the Spring of 1945, the Nazis could recruit only old men and teenaged boys. Germany had no more men of prime military age. The Nazis had “wonder weapons” e.g., the first juet fighter (Me-262) but no one to fly them.

    Thus, when a boat stuffed with drugs is found in international waters by a US warship, the captain of that warship should have standing orders to sink the drug-stuffed boat, after locking-up the crew below-decks. That disposes of the boat, crew and cargo. We can trust who have charge of US warships to do the right thing, in situations where we would not want to trust police officers.

    Until we set about annihilating drug traffickers, the “war on drugs” will remain a sham.