15/06/2016 8:43 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST

UNGASS 2016: Nations Call For A Humane Approach To Drug Problem, But Is India Listening?

Keith Leighton / Alamy

In the recently concluded Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem, 2016, a shift towards a "humane solution" was mooted, emphasizing that the international community should focus beyond criminalization and enforcement in order to initiate an effective drug policy. This special session on drugs, which comes after a long break of 18 years, has been considered monumental for its clear statement demanding a move away from the hardline, prohibitionist approach towards drugs. Several countries, including those worst affected by international drug trafficking and drug-related violence, like Mexico, Columbia, and Guatemala, argued for decriminalization of drugs, pointing to past experiences where repressive treatment towards drug problem have proved counterproductive. India, however, represented by its Finance Minister Mr Arun Jaitley, made a statement urging the global community to toughen its collective fight against drug trafficking and its network with terrorists.

Unfortunately, we have failed to keep abreast of responses to the drug menace in the healthcare and human rights fronts.

While it is commendable to have used the current UNGASS as a platform to re-prioritize the fight against drugs and "put people first", it raises some important questions on the real contribution made by these customary drills. Unsurprisingly, over the years, these sessions have varied marginally in their agenda and outcomes. This could be a result of involvement of particular institutions, like the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which hold certain perspectives on drug policies, and an overwhelming absence of diverse stakeholders from civil society. The two initial sessions, held in 1990 and 1998 respectively, resulted in mere reiteration of international commitment to multiple UN conventions dealing with narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances. In fact, the second special session in 1998 made loud avowals of "war on drugs" through a zero-tolerance approach. It is believed that this has failed to make a visible impact on either trafficking or drug use. The unreasonable controls have led to a spiralling black market for drugs. The Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) and the International Narcotic Control Board (INCB) continue to dominate preparatory and primary meetings, thereby constantly drawing attention to illicit trafficking. Individual nations and members of civil society have found it difficult to voice important cross-cutting issues of health and human rights.

India and the relevance of UNGASS

Apart from being an enthusiastic signatory to the three conventions, India has had very little presence in international dialogues around the drug problem. In compliance with these conventions, we enacted the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS), 1985. The statute adhered to the stringent punishments conceived and shared by several signatory nations and even introduced provision for death penalty for select offences. It has tried to emulate parts of liberal drug regimes by mitigating the punishment for individual users. However, the similarity with progressive jurisdictions ends here.

Our responses in terms of devising an effective drug policy have been unimaginative and inadequate. De-addiction and rehabilitation mechanisms in India are lacking.

Unfortunately, we have failed to keep abreast of responses to the drug menace in the healthcare and human rights fronts. Countries like Sweden and Portugal have taken active steps towards decriminalization of personal consumption of drugs, instituting greater assistive systems and rehabilitation centres, and have even introduced medically supervised consumption. These positive measures have helped in significant reduction of drug-related deaths, violence and consequently, even illicit trafficking. India faces many challenges through an ever expanding drug market containing a growing number of individual users. However, our responses in terms of devising an effective drug policy have been unimaginative and inadequate. De-addiction and rehabilitation mechanisms in India are lacking. Those that exist suffer from inadequacy of resources and appropriate medical care. Further, there is a glaring absence of political will to tackle the problem through a health and human rights approach. The flawed interpretation of the NDPS Act, which fails to adequately prioritize rehabilitation, has been carried forward in most government policies.

India had an invaluable opportunity to raise pertinent issues in the present UNGASS as it is one of the key stakeholders, having operated as a lucrative market for most forms of drugs. Disappointingly, the Finance Minister representing the Indian delegation merely reiterated the over-done point on trafficking and tightening controls. The opportunity could have been used to address many challenges facing rehabilitation of addicts and the emergence of new drugs, including a range of psychotropic substances. As several studies indicate, India relies overly on Opioid Substitution Therapies (OSTs) even as they are scarce, and not easily accessible in proportion to the magnitude of the problem. There has been no attempt towards widening evidence-based, effective treatment. Further, a combination of short-term and long-term strategies for de-addiction and rehabilitation, which includes effective follow-ups and monitoring, is absent. Even as countries that are mired in the trafficking menace, like Mexico, promise to move towards a more liberal drug regime and raise the quantum of drugs that can be carried in person, India chose to be silent on the harm reduction approach.

Outcomes of UNGASS

UNGASS 2016 adopted the preparatory 'outcome document' drafted by CND earlier in March, in Vienna. The document is criticized for having been incomplete and not reflective of the larger propositions laid out in the special session. Also, it is strangely silent on the hotly debated topics of death penalty and harm reduction. This led to the Global Commission on Drug Policy terming it as a "fatally flawed" process.

Threats from trafficking may seem imminent. But that should not deter us from addressing the immediate needs of people who suffer from addiction...

It also witnessed significant discord in the main session as member countries disagreed widely on critical aspects of retaining the death penalty and introducing replacement therapies. Countries like China and Indonesia continue to be strong votaries of the death penalty as a key aspect of drug regulation while other nations have strongly denounced such a position. Russia, in a panel sponsored by it, strayed completely from scientific approaches to heroin addiction and denied merit in any evidence-based drug substitution therapies. These were merely indicative of rifts between nations and counterproductive to meaningful collective action in addressing the drug problem, especially through focus on public health. It is doubtful whether the proposed balance in the outcome document can be achieved amidst existing discord among member nations.

Like Switzerland, many believe that the present UNGASS has been a futile endeavour, resulting in more hype than actual change in traditional drug policy. The Political Declaration and Plan of Action adopted in the current session, leading to the next session in 2019, vows to combat the world drug problem through ensuring public health, placing emphasis on individuals, families, communities, and society as a whole. It has proposed, with many member nations being in agreement, that it is utopic to think of a drug-free society. However, potential policies should focus on "fostering a healthy style of life and safe development." Executive director of UNODC, Yury Fedotov, extended the institution's commitment towards promoting "prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and reintegration approaches rooted in evidence, science, public health and human rights" as one of the primary obligations. In its statement in the main session, the World Health Organization pointed out that there is a serious need to shift the exclusive focus of drug policies from the criminal justice system to where there is greater harm i.e. drug dependence and drug use disorders.


Broadly, UNGASS may not have envisaged the most promising outcomes from shared action against the world drug problem. But it needs to be credited for having taken the first step towards resisting the conventional approach to fighting drugs at a macro level, which devotes more attention to trafficking and illicit trade. This special session is laudable as a number of nations have voiced the need to change their strategies in fighting the world drug problem. It may have promised very little but if the member nations manage to stand fast by their current compact, many transformations can be expected by 2019. Admittedly, changes till date have been a result of previously adopted political declarations and plans of action. India has much to learn and adopt from these developments. Threats from trafficking may seem imminent. But that should not deter us from addressing the immediate needs of people who suffer from addiction and want of appropriate healthcare to break free from its clutches. We hope that by 2019, India would have had time to reflect and act upon both domestic and international policies in fighting drugs.

The author is Research Fellow, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, New Delhi

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