Breaking the Impasse

Polarisation & Paralysis in UN Drug Control
David Bewley-Taylor Martin Jelsma
TNI Drugs & Conflict Debate Paper 5
July 2002

The past decade has seen an increasing polarisation between divergent trends in global drug policies. On the one hand, there has been an escalation in the US driven War on Drugs, which has created a drug gulag domestically and increased and militarised forced eradication abroad. On the other hand, in Europe and several like-minded countries, a more flexible and pragmatic approach has gained ground in domestic drug policy-making, taking distance from indiscriminate repression and the zero-tolerance approach. In these countries, the trend towards greater leniency has become irreversible and rational thinking is gradually replacing the dogmas of the past. Such tolerant approaches have reached their legal limits within the framework of the current UN Drug Conventions.

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The result of the polarisation between the two main trends is paralysis at the UN level. The 1998 United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs was originally called to evaluate the effectiveness of the current repressive drug control regime, but early in the preparatory phase the UNGASS was reoriented towards an affirmation of prohibitionism. Now, four years on, the unrealistic targets and deadlines set for 2008 at the UNGASS have proven, yet again, to be a failure. A new opportunity for evaluation could open up when the mid-term review of UNGASS takes place in April 2003.

This issue of Drugs & Conflict attempts to outline the possibilities for a breakthrough in the current impasse, which clearly lie only with some sort of change to – or defection from – the current regime. The US is anticipated to be the major obstacle but its capacity to enforce the status quo is likely to be undermined by the growing tension between its multilateral responsibilities as hegemon and the extent to which it has been demonstrating its desire and material capability to act unilaterally.