How the UN Drugs Summit Excluded Young Voices and Failed Youth All Over the World

Apr 29 2016

How the UN Drugs Summit Excluded Young Voices and Failed Youth All Over the World

April 29th, 2016

I traveled to New York City last week, taking United Nations leaders at their word that the high-level summit they were hosting on the global War on Drugs would be “inclusive” and would provide opportunities to seriously reevaluate drug policies that have ruined far too many people’s lives.

But I was badly mistaken.

As members of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), my colleagues and I understood the UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS) could be a chance for world leaders to undertake a true and comprehensive reexamination of prohibition and criminalization policies that are facing increasing opposition from the citizens and voters across the world whom they claim to represent.

A growing number of countries are beginning to enact reforms like marijuana legalization and harm reduction strategies like syringe exchange, and officials from some nations made a point to speak out during UNGASS sessions in support of a human-centered, harm reduction approach to drug use and misuse. But most of what we saw at the UN amounted to little more than a bizarre self-congratulatory celebration for maintaining international drug treaties that have so obviously failed for decades.

To us, as students, the most maddening part of the whole ordeal was the growing realization that although the drug war is waged in the name of protecting young people from the dangers of drugs, our voices are continually shut out of the debate about the negative impacts that criminalization policies have on our generations. Instead of being listened to and included, youth are tokenized and talked at.

As just one particularly glaring example, at a UNGASS side event billed as being about the importance of listening to youth voices, many young people were actually denied entry into the session despite having valid passes and despite the dozens of empty seats in the room. Ironically, the event served as the launch of the UN drug czar’s inaptly named #ListenFirst campaign.

We are exactly the people that policymakers need to be listening to when they discuss laws that impact us. More than one out of every five drug arrests in the United States targets someone under age 21, according to the most recent FBI data. More than 40 percent of people arrested for drugs were under age 25. American college students convicted of drug offenses are evicted from dorms or stripped of their financial aid, often having to drop out and face an already difficult job market with the added stigma of a criminal record.

But rather than having our ideas taken seriously at UNGASS, my SSDP colleagues were told on several occasions to “grow up” by older opponents of drug policy reform. They implied that once we are older, we will learn that keeping drugs illegal and punishing people for use is the only way to reduce drug problems (despite the decades of evidence demonstrating the miserable failures of that strategy).

But we didn’t let that sort of thing stop us from making our voices heard in other ways.

When we arrived in town, flanked by hundreds of our colleagues who had just been bussed up from SSDP’s international conference in Washington, DC, we held a rally outside the UN to air our grievances with drug policies that have harmed so many of our peers.


Trevor Thornburg, an SSDP alum from the University of Arizona, stepped up to the soapbox and described how an outdated drug war mentality causes so many needless deaths. Speaking of his friend Will, who died of a heroin overdose in January, Trevor said, “This young man, with every indication of a bright and successful future ahead of him, overdosed and died on his very first day of college. That would never have happened in a world where drugs are legal, regulated and labeled for potency and purity. At the very least, lifesaving overdose antidotes like naloxone should be readily available on college campuses to prevent tragedies like the one that cost me someone who was like a brother to me.”

The last UNGASS on drug policy, nearly two decades ago, operated under the slogan, “A drug-free world—We can do it!” But since then, drugs haven’t gone away. In fact, four US states and the nation’s capital have voted to legalize marijuana. The nation of Uruguay ended cannabis prohibition, and Canada’s newly-elected prime minister campaigned on doing the same. Portugal has decriminalized all drugs. A growing number of countries are recognizing that the goal of eliminating drug use is embarrassingly impossible and have instead decided to enact more realistic measures that seek to reduce the harms of substance consumption as much as possible.

At last week’s UNGASS, though, some world leaders were still pushing to “promote a society free of drug abuse.”

But even while UN bodies like the Office on Drugs and Crime and the International Narcotics Control Board team up with powerful countries like Russia, China and in some cases the United States to shut down debate on ending prohibition, a notable number of nations took the opportunity during official sessions to articulate the need to dramatically alter our course.

Jane Philpott, Canada’s health minister, for example, said that countries need drug policies that “respect human rights” and are based on a “firm scientific foundation.” Announcing that her government would follow though on a campaign pledge to legalize marijuana, Philpott acknowledged that the move “challenges the status quo in many countries,” but said that “it is the best way to protect our youth while enhancing public safety.”

And Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto traveled to the UN to “giv[e] voice to those who have expressed the necessity of changing the regulatory framework to authorize the use of marijuana for medical and scientific purposes” and endorsed increasing the amount of cannabis that is decriminalized in his country “with the purpose of not criminalizing users.”

As just one more example, Jamaican Foreign Minister Kamina Johnson-Smith said that marijuana’s classification under international drug treaties as a Schedule I drug—the most restrictive category—“is an anomaly,” arguing that the current approach ignores “science and evidence-based analysis.”

But these impressive speeches took place after the General Assembly had already adopted a predetermined “outcome document” expressing unyielding allegiance to the international drug control treaties that purport to prevent countries from ending prohibition. So, instead of coming together to have a real debate on the issues and then settle on a way forward, UNGASS approved the outcome document as the very first item of business and then spent the next three days talking about it. That’s completely backwards.

And that wasn’t the only problem with how the UN ran things at what was supposed to be an opportunity for open and serious reexamination of global drug policies. While I won’t bore you with a long list of all the last-minute procedural changes and general disorganization the UN exhibited this week, leading to a lack of real dialogue about solutions to the problem we came to discuss, here are a few especially outrageous examples:

  • Security personnel were directed to physically confiscate copies of a letter calling for fundamental reforms to drug policy signed by more than 1,000 world leaders including Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, former President Jimmy Carter and former heads of state of Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Switzerland, among other nations. When UN leadership is afraid of paper handouts because they’re threatened by the content, you know something is wrong.
  • As noted above, students were kept out of panels supposedly about listening to youth voices. Even when we were able to get inside a room, security singled us out to double check our passes. Aidan Harold, a high school SSDP member from Canada, was the only young person in the General Assembly session at one point, and out of the 75-100 people in the room, he was the only one approached by security about his pass. “It’s a very disconcerted feeling to be excluded and discriminated against by the very group of people claiming to be working to help you,” he said. “‘Building a better tomorrow for today’s youth’ is the theme for UNGASS, and yet at every turn I have been prevented from attending meetings or sharing my opinion.”
  • Most sessions and side events didn’t even build in enough time for members of civil society to ask questions at the end. When there was time for participation, the floor was rarely turned over to SSDP members or our other youth allies. During a roundtable on human rights, for example, we ensured several of our members were in the room 20 minutes early and prepared with statements. Yet despite indicating our desire to speak from the very beginning, we weren’t called upon once during the three-hour session. Instead, the floor went to more member states who made more hypocritical claims about the importance of listening to youth.

And beyond the disrespect shown to members of civil society and nongovernmental organizations like SSDP, the UN ignored calls for reform from countries themselves. Despite the strong speeches from Canada, Mexico, Jamaica and others, the final outcome document excluded concrete steps proposed by participating nations.

While the whole experience proved frustrating, the truth is that the attempted silencing of our voices only galvanizes us to fight harder. And we know that moving ahead, more and more drug policy reforms are going to be enacted which will make it much more difficult for the UN to keep pretending that the status quo is working and doesn’t need to be changed.

This year, for example, advocates in the US are expected to succeed in at least doubling the number of states with legal marijuana. Next year, Canada’s cannabis legalization law will go into effect. Patients in Mexico will soon be granted legal access to medical marijuana. And other countries will move away from prohibition and toward policies that effectively reduce the harms associated with drug misuse.

At the next UNGASS on drug policy in 2019, after three more years of evidence, advocacy and people recognizing the failures of the drug war, we have good reason to believe that world leaders will have no choice but to engage in a serious conversation about changing the international drug control treaties that still deter some countries from moving ahead with sensible reforms.

This year’s UNGASS was supposed to be an opportunity to finally share the stories of young people whose lives are being destroyed by the drug war.

On the final day of UNGASS, a side event was held where individuals shared stories about children, siblings and friends who have died as a result of the effects of the international drug control regime. The side event was everything that UNGASS should have been: an inclusive, open space where the voices of those most affected by the drug war could be heard by those who need to hear them the most.

The 30 of us youth drug policy reform advocates who were inside the UN last week may be frustrated about what happened there, but we can never forget the millions of young people around the world who are losing their lives due to the UN’s insistence on continuing the failed drug war. That is why we refuse to back down. We will continue to get into the faces of those who support the status quo. We will continue to call out hypocrisy. We will continue to share the stories of our friends, family and peers who are having their lives stripped away from them.

As just one example, SSDP is launching an online campaign this week inspired by the prohibitionists who told us at UNGASS to “grow up.” We are encouraging young people who care about the harmful impacts of the drug war to take to Twitter and use the hashtag #GrowUpOrShutUp to post pictures of themselves with their mouths taped shut. In this way, we are depicting how prohibitionists who control the UN value (or, more accurately, devalue) the voices of young people.

We will continue to do actions like this—online, in the streets and in the halls of power—because the goal of official processes like UNGASS should not be creating a better tomorrow for the world’s youth; it should be creating a better tomorrow with the world’s youth.


Sarah Merrigan is a senior studying Political Science at the University of Nebraska Omaha. She serves on the national board of directors of Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

  • Ash Blackwell

    Great article. Such a missed opportunity from the Governments and institutions to be on the right side of history. The one positive from this failure is the networks of motivated people from civil society groups such as SSDP that have come away more determined than ever. We’re not going to stop doing, and advocating for harm reduction just because international institutions have shied away.

  • Joe Minella

    They don’t want their cushy boats rocked. Bubbleville.

  • julianbuchanan

    Let’s be honest here – what a misplaced waste of time, money and energy in the first place to attempt to engage in the facade of debate with the UN regarding drug policy.

    But you can’t blame the young people they’re taking the lead from the main national/international drug policy reform agencies such as Transform who have encouraged people to believe that drug policy change can be led by the UN.

    The UN is the bastion of prohibition, in policy terms t has not yielded on that position one iota, ever.

    There is no world drug problem for them to fix, there is a world drug policy problem they have created and sustained.

    Countries and organisations should be encouraged to boycott and withdraw from the UN not validate it.

    Change will be achieved by pushing for nations (not the world) pursuing national drug policies rooted in science and evidence that protect and promote human rights and harm reduction.

    Energy, money, time and efforts poured into the UN machine simply continues the inertia, the facade and spawns a new sector of drug policy entrepreneurs.

    for more debate on this see:

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