Harm Reduction

UNGASS: What’s at Stake at the UN Special Assembly



Photo credit: Open Society Foundations

Today through Thursday (April 19th-21st), the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (U.N.G.A.S.S) will meet in New York to evaluate and reconsider worldwide efforts at drug control policies and their impact. The last session (held in 1998) saw member states adopt a resolution that focused on highlighting the detrimental affects of drug use and trafficking, resulting in calls for strengthening enforcement and control mechanisms around the world in efforts to completely eradicate drug use. Similar to the detrimental effect the ‘War on Drugs’ has had in the United States (fueling mass incarceration, influencing public perception of drug use as a crime vs. public health issue), the global war on drugs has led to ‘public health crises, mass incarceration, corruption and black market-fueled violence‘, particularly in Latin American countries who have been hit hard by the violence of the international drug trade and the policies in place to combat it.

Women as well have been disproportionally impacted by international drug policy which places an undue burden on them and their children as primary caregivers. The war on drugs has been especially harsh on mothers struggling with addiction making drug policy reform central to the Reproductive Justice movement. In the United States, Black mothers in particular bore the brunt of the ill stigma of the intersection of motherhood and drug use when they became the face of the “crack baby” epidemic. Overall, the Black community in the United States and other communities of color have been especially impacted by drug policy which has resulted in the overcriminalization and overincarceration of people in those communities. This is despite the fact that while white Americans are more likely than Black Americans to have used most kinds of illegal drugs, and are more likely to deal drugs, Black folks are more likely to be arrested for them. The view of drug use in the Black community as an issue of crime vs. the current re-imagining of drug use as a public health issue now that it has impacted white America (and the disproportionate sentencing laws for drugs primarily used by Black vs white folks ie: crack vs. cocaine despite similar chemical make up) also fueled mass incarceration in this country through drug policy. Disproportionate sentencing due to mandatory Bernard Noble poster with daughter finalminimums (sentencing laws require prison terms of a pre-determined length for people convicted of certain crimes. They undermine justice with a ‘one size fits all’ approach to sentencing which doesn’t allow judges to consider punishment that fits the individual and the circumstances of their offenses) and habitual offender laws have also led to a cycle of increasingly longer incarceration for low level drug offenders. Take for instance the local case of Bernard Noble who was convicted in 2011 as a habitual offender and is serving 13.3 years behind bars for 2.8 grams of marijuana. Noble had two prior non-violent convictions, and despite being initially sentenced by trial judges to 5 years (still too long…), the Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro appealed until his sentence was extended to 13.3 years, showing the commitment agents of the system have to maintaining the overly punitive nature of the system. The continued stigma of drug users in the United States, particularly those who are at the intersection of womanhood and poverty, has allowed the continued human rights abuses of drug users in the U.S. The most recent high profile example of this was the case of police office Daniel Holtzclaw who specifically targeted and sexually assaulted Black women who were “drug abusers and sex workers” knowing full well what little social and legal avenues of protection they would receive.

International focus on punitive measures for drug traffickers and users instead of addressing the social conditions that foster the growth of illicit drug markets and users has proved thoroughly ineffective in addressing drug use in the United States and worldwide. Successful policy level reforms in some nations like Switzerland (see below for case study), though previously ignored or pushed aside by the U.N., as well as grassroots campaigns by activists on the ground across the world have led leaders to consider harm reduction reform efforts in unprecedented ways.


According to the Open Society Foundations,

International debates on drugs are rarely more than reaffirmations of the established system. But 2016 is different. Never before have so many governments voiced displeasure with the international drug control regime. Never before, to this degree, have citizens put drug law reform on the agenda and passed regulatory proposals via referenda or by popular campaigns. Never before have the health benefits of harm reduction approaches—which prevent overdose and transmission of diseases like HIV—been clearer. For the first time, there is significant dissent at the local, national, and international levels. UNGASS 2016 is an unparalleled opportunity to put an end to the horrors of the drug war and instead prioritize health, human rights, and safety. The simple fact is that if your government wants to introduce drug policy reform, it may have to wrestle with the stewards of the drug control system in the UN. For example, in the early 1990s, Switzerland faced a major drug problem. The country had open-air drug scenes and one of the highest rates of HIV in Western Europe. Rather than traditional, unsuccessful criminal justice approaches, the government pioneered health services such as heroin prescription, supervised consumption rooms, and community-based treatment. The Swiss people approved this policy through a series of referenda. The results were eye-opening. 

  • The number of new heroin users declined from 850 in 1990 to 150 in 2002
  • drug-related deaths declined by more than 50 percent between 1991 and 2004
  • levels of new HIV infections dropped 87 percent in 10 years,
  • there was a 90 percent reduction of property crime committed by people who use drugs. 

However, rather than lauding these successes, the UN’s drug panel (the International Narcotics Control Board), accused the Swiss government of “aiding and/or abetting the commission of crimes involving illegal drug possession and use, as well as other criminal offences, including drug trafficking.” When Uruguay experimented with new cannabis policies, the International Narcotics Control Board’s president went even further, accusing Uruguay of demonstrating “pirate attitudes.” This kind of insult against a country is extremely rare for a body of its kind.

In addition to criticism, some of these officials have a history of applauding some of the worst excesses in drug control. For example, after Bulgaria introduced a law that made possession of tiny amounts of drugs punishable with mandatory incarceration for as long as 15 years, the International Narcotics Control Board praised Bulgaria’s “political commitment and the will to deal with drug abuse.”

Given this troubling, ineffective and overall detrimental approach to drug policy in the past 2 decades, advocates around the world are gathered in New York or waiting eagerly at home to hear result from this year’s UNGASS gathering. So what’s at stake at this year’s gathering? A potential change to the global approach to international drug policy, one that includes a harm reduction and human rights perspective agitated for by people on the ground most impacted and working with those who are.

Alongside the partner level gathering, advocates convened a free 3 day gathering and gallery called The Museum of Drug Policy including panels, rallies, performances and film screenings centered on human rights based drug policy reform. Catch our Executive Director Deon Haywood speaking at the following events, and follow along with UNGASS 2016 using the hashtag #UNGASS and #UNGASS2016 :



What: Museum of Drug Policy Pop Up Cultural Hub coinciding with UNGASS

Where: 245 Park Avenue (corner of Park & E 47th St.)

When: April 19-21, 2016; Open 10:00 am to 10:00 pm

Evening programming at 6:00pm with refreshments.

WHO: Melissa HarrisPerry, Russell Simmons, Matthew Heineman, Javier Sicilia, Hank Willis Thomas, Dr.Carl Hart, Glenn Martin, Baz Dreisinger, DJ Beverly Bond, Jasiri X and more.

Tweets: FREE EVENT: April 19-21 in #NYC. The Museum of Drug Policy – 70+ art installations, talks, film & more. #UNGASS2016

Going to #UNGASS2016 ? Visit The Museum of Drug Policy – a cultural hub elevating the voices of #drugpolicy reform

The Pop­up Cultural Hub will take place on April 19, 20, 21 April 5, 2016 (New York, N.Y.).

The Museum of Drug Policy is a pop­up cultural hub that includes an immersive art experience and special live programming looking at the impact of current drug policies on populations around the world. The Museum will occupy space on Park Avenue for three days this month, during the United Nations General Assembly’s Special Session (UNGASS) on the world drug problem. Through art, conversations and experiential events, the Museum will showcase that the moment is now for drug policy reform and that damage caused by the war on drugs is evident across the world. The Museum will uplift the voices of people most impacted by the global drug policy: people who use drugs, crop growers, people who are incarcerated, people who have saved lives or lost loved ones to drug overdose, people on death row for drug offenses, doctors who can’t prescribe adequate pain relief to their patients, and other voices of the international drug policy reform movement.

The Museum of Drug Policy will feature 70+ works from artists around the world, with interactive art installations, keynote addresses, panels, and community discussions that take attendees on a journey exploring the real impact and human cost of drug policy in communities around the world. Highlights include a special, live version of “Nerdland Forever: Live WithMelissa Harris­Perry” that will include some very special guests. “Beats, Rhymes and Reform” will elevate the stories of people most impacted by the war on drugs through a night of spoken word poetry, featuring world­renowned poets and a special appearance by hip­hop mogul Russell Simmons and Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, whose son was murdered in 2011 by Mexican drug cartels. Academy Award­nominated director Matthew Heineman will do a Q&A with audience members after screening his new feature­length documentary, Cartel Land.The film sheds light on the Mexican drug war, with a focus on vigilante groups on both sides of the border to combat the cartels.

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