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The 2016 UNGASS on Drugs: A Catalyst for the Drug Policy Reform Movement

Collapse of the Global Order on Drugs: From UNGASS 2016 to Review 2019

ISBN: 978-1-78756-488-6, eISBN: 978-1-78756-487-9

Publication date: 15 October 2018


This chapter reviews the history of civil society engagement on drug policy at the UN. Despite the challenging beginnings characterised by small numbers of civil society attendees at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, coupled with government mistrust, in the last two decades, civil society representatives have made visible progress in advocating for policy reform and changing the terms of the debate.

Efforts by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the lead up to, as well as during the 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS), best illustrate this increase in impact and engagement. Reform-orientated civil society strategised heavily on how to bring ‘comprehensive, diverse, balanced, and inclusive’ representation to the UNGASS and achieved this through the Civil Society Task Force, which was carefully balanced in terms of geographic, gender and ideological diversity, and included nine representatives from affected populations, including people who use drugs, people in recovery from drug use disorders, families, youth, farmers of crops deemed illicit, harm reduction, prevention, access to controlled medicines and criminal justice.

The 2016 UNGASS saw the fruition of greater civil society engagement. Eleven speakers were chosen to speak in the forum showcasing the calibre and diversity of civil society representatives. They made powerful, at times poignant statements and pleas for better, more compassionate treatment of people who use drugs, farmers of crops deemed illicit, as well as respect for human rights, sustainable livelihoods and the need to approach the issue through a public health and human rights lens.

The chapter concludes with the finding that reform-orientated civil society had a significant impact on the UNGASS – both on the gains in the Outcome Document and at the actual event, while noting that the most impactful ways to influence has nonetheless been through reform advocacy efforts outside of the official civil society mechanisms. Civil society engagement remains a serious challenge. International solidarity and global networking remain a central part of the drug policy reform movement’s strategy to advocate for change at the national, regional and global levels.



Fordham, A. and Haase, H. (2018), "The 2016 UNGASS on Drugs: A Catalyst for the Drug Policy Reform Movement", Klein, A. and Stothard, B. (Ed.) Collapse of the Global Order on Drugs: From UNGASS 2016 to Review 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 21-47.



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