Six of the Worst Failures of the UN's Latest World Drug Report

Jun 23 2016

Six of the Worst Failures of the UN’s Latest World Drug Report

June 23rd, 2016

Today the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released its 2016 World Drug Report. According to the Open Society Foundations (OSF), an international advocacy and grant-making organization that aims to advance justice, education and public health, the report “reinforces prohibitionist and law enforcement-based strategies that continue to perpetuate violence, instability, and health crises across the world.”


Just as with the recent UNGASS summit, the UN has largely failed to highlight effective new solutions. Instead, says Kasia Malinowska, director of OSF’s Global Drug Policy Program, “the UN is using measures of success that were defined decades ago and are not appropriate.”

“What we were hoping for,” she explains to The Influence, “is that we would rethink the way we measure success—that success is not going to be about how many fewer tons of drugs will be transported, how many fewer acres of drugs will be produced—success will look differently and it will speak to quality of life of drug users, people who are marginalized, including farmers from poorest countries. This report does not depart at all from a prohibitionist perspective.”

Here are six of the biggest problems with the report:

1. Failure to Acknowledge Economic Realities in “Producer Countries”

The UN Office of Drugs and Crime (the authors of the report) seem to “assume that if tomorrow all of the coca and cannabis and opium plants would wither away, then the world would be better,” says Malinowska. “But would the world be better for people who are growers—the rural poor, who depend on these crops for their absolute survival?”

“Drug economies are real,” she continues, “and while of course you have cartels and wealth on top, you have hundreds of thousands of very poor people that [grow, transport, or sell drugs in order to] pay for their basic needs.”

“I traveled with a colleague to a very poor area of Columbia where coca is a big issue. I met a single mom of two children who engaged in a very very low level drug market, who was imprisoned for six months, had no idea where her kids were…what is the sense of making a criminal of that person?”


2. Failure to Acknowledge Economic Realities in “Consumer Countries”

We can see the same dynamic right here in the US, in “some cities where the opportunities for employment for young people is almost nonexistent,” Malinowska points out. “We have to recognize the fact that the drug industry provides people with real income. If we don’t understand this, then we’re not going to design interventions that respond to it.”

“We somehow see people who are engaged in the drug industry already as criminals.” Once they are criminalized, “they are actively excluded from anything that could potentially benefit them.”

For example, the US has “laws that prevent people with drug crimes accessing federal aid for college. Someone who engaged in petty dealing is basically shut out of higher education for their entire life. We just need to be thoughtful to what happens to people who are labeled as criminals.”


3. Failure to Embrace Harm Reduction (While Paying Lip-Service to the Term)

The 174-page report does mention the phrase “harm reduction” a handful of times. Yet it’s defined quite narrowly:

“For the purpose of the present report, harm reduction is understood to refer to the set of the measures defined by WHO, UNODC and UNAIDS to prevent HIV and other blood-borne infections among people who inject drugs[…]for the provision of comprehensive HIV prevention, treatment and care services among people who inject drugs.”

In other words, says Malinowska, the UNODC agrees to support interventions around HIV prevention like needle exchanges. However: “I think the difficulty we all have with that specific UN agency, is that while it sort of understands and agrees to the interventions, there is some trouble with agreeing to the overall framing—which is that people use drugs, and people will use drugs, and so the best we can do is to create an environment where we can meet their needs.”

“If you look at the report, abstinence from drugs is what they will advocate as the primary goal.”

As an OSF spokesperson says, “There is little mention of harm reduction principles or acknowledgement that in addition to abstinence, drug users can reduce their risk through practices such as testing drugs for purity and moving away from injection towards other forms of administration.”


4. Failure to Acknowledge the Violence of the Criminal Justice System

According to OSF, “The analysis of drug-related violence fails to acknowledge the role of the criminal justice system and the international funding dedicated to militarization efforts, ultimately fueling state-driven violence.”

The report acknowledges that “the excessive use of imprisonment for drug-related offenses of a minor nature is ineffective in reducing recidivism and overburdens criminal justice systems.”

Those poor, overburdened criminal justice systems! What about the brutal toll “the excessive use of imprisonment” takes on the people who are imprisoned?

The report does state, however, that “the drug-related mortality rate after release from prison has been found to be 50-100 times higher than the mortality rate of the general population.” Might this suggest that we should stop putting people in prison? They don’t say.


5. Failure to Stand Against the Death Penalty

The report “blatantly omits any mention of the death penalty for drugs and does not call for its abolition,” says OSF. “UN human rights and drug control bodies now recognize that the death penalty for drugs violates international law, but as we see in this report and the UNGASS outcome document, the UNODC continues to fund states carrying out this practice and remains silent on this topic.”

“There is such high disagreement with it,” says Malinowska, “but the UN agency that leads the efforts is so shy about articulating [the death penalty] as an abusive and completely out of proportion response.”

Plus, says Malinowska, we don’t even hear about the extent to which it is used. We usually only hear about the death penalty being used to punish drug offenses “when it is used by a country against a foreigner, because the home countries step up and speak on behalf of their own citizens.” For example, “Brazil was upset about Indonesia using it on a Brazilian person…we see a tiny layer of information about executions, but at the same time countries are executing many of their own people that we don’t hear about. In Iran, there are many women on death row. In Malaysia, over 100 people are waiting to be executed for drugs.”


6. Failure to Properly Acknowledge the “Invisible Majority” of People who Use Drugs Non-Problematically

The report does acknowledge that the vast majority of people who use drugs do not have “drug use disorders.” It includes this crystal-clear graphic illustrating the point:


Yet, it says nothing about what should be done with all the people who use drugs who are not in need of any treatment.

“The first option for people with drug use disorders who are brought into contact with the criminal justice system for minor offenses should be an alternative to incarceration,” states the report.

But what about people brought into contact with the criminal justice system for minor offenses who would get no benefit from from any type of “alternative to incarceration” treatment program? Who would benefit simply from being able to get on with their lives without contact with the criminal justice system?

The report does not say.