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Losing UNGASS? Lessons from civil society, past and present

John Collins (LSE IDEAS, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK)

Drugs and Alcohol Today

ISSN: 1745-9265

Article publication date: 5 June 2017




The purpose of this paper is to examine the role of civil society in the recent history of drug policy reform. It focuses on the UN drug control system, which is designed to regulate certain “scheduled” or listed substances internationally. It provides new light on recent reformist discourses and strategic agendas and how they related to the reality of UN politics and international relations. It questions the idea that the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) in 2016 was a failure in terms of outcomes. It concludes by suggesting that the true outcomes of the UNGASS process will initially be obscured by the complexity of national-international drug policy dialectics, but may eventually prove more tangible and enduring than proposed formal systemic reforms.


The paper examines the historical role of civil society in the UN drug control system. It highlights that although civil society played a key role in the early formation of the system, this role diminished over time as the system professionalised. Meanwhile, as a new reformist movement emerged in the 1990s challenging the status quo, the paper traces this movement through the early UNGASS process, the decline of the reformist era and the eventual UNGASS outcomes. It concludes with a critical evaluation of civil society strategies and the relationship between idealistic strategies and the realities of national and international politics.


Rather than a failure of outcomes, UNGASS represented a failure of assumptions, strategic vision and ultimately expectations on the part of reform optimists. These groups ultimately created and became captive to a goal of formal systemic reforms, or treaty revisions, underpinned by a dogmatic assumption of “the inescapable logic of reform necessity”. This logic argued that highlighting treaty “breaches” and contradictions would be a sufficient condition to drive a formal UN system-wide re-evaluation of drug control. These failures of strategic assumptions and vision ultimately resulted in the sense of “failure” of UNGASS 2016.

Research limitations/implications

This research highlights the need to critically evaluate civil society strategies and desired outcomes with an eye to history, international relations and the realities of managing a complex global issue. The application of mono-causal explanations for individual state actions or international cooperation is shown to be vastly insufficient to explain, plan for or predict the outcomes of a complex multilateral framework. Furthermore, this paper highlights a research agenda on the role of civil society in drug policy formation and how this relates to the current policy and advocacy groupings among member states and interest groups at national and international levels.

Practical implications

This paper highlights a more realistic appraisal of the determinants of and possibilities to change international drug policy. It thereby utilises an impressionistic historical narrative of the UNGASS process to enable an evaluation of the frontiers of policy reform at the UN level and provide some guidance on the failures of past strategies and potential future directions of international drug control and reformist strategies.

Social implications

As highlighted in this paper, drug policy is an area where major policy failures are recognised within the current international approach. Experimentation with new tactics and strategies are needed to break out of the traditional prohibition-centric approach to this issue. The benefits of more successful policies would be felt though a lower level of harm from drug use, drug markets and drug policy. As such, a pragmatic understanding of how the international system might evolve to support new evidence-based approaches is crucial to developing a socially beneficial approach to drugs and drug policy.


The originality of this research lies in its blending of a historical evaluation of the role of civil society in the UN drug control system and the strategies of contemporary civil society actors around the UNGASS process. Thereby it allows a more critical evaluation of the strategic goals, assumptions and outcomes of reformist strategies in the recent era and potential strategies moving forward.



Collins, J. (2017), "Losing UNGASS? Lessons from civil society, past and present", Drugs and Alcohol Today, Vol. 17 No. 2, pp. 88-97.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2017, Emerald Publishing Limited

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