Concept Note for Identifying Common Ground on Public Health

United Nations University, April 2015.
Summer Walker and James Cockayne

As momentum builds towards the General Assembly’s Special Session on the World Drug Problem, scheduled for early 2016 (UNGASS 2016), there are increasing calls for it to be used, as UNODC Executive Director Yuri Fedotov put in 2014, to “reaffirm the original spirit of the conventions, focusing on health”. In his opening statement at the annual meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in March 2015, International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) President Dr. Lochan Naidoo likewise stated that “the drug issue is first and foremost a matter of public and individual health and welfare. These are the key words in the preambles of all three drug control conventions…” 
But what does a ‘public health approach’ to global drug policy mean in practice? Member States, civil society actors, and increasingly also different actors within the global drug control regime’s governance structures – such as CND, INCB and the World Health Organization (WHO) – seem to approach the question differently. This is leading both to areas of emerging consensus, and to stark differences of interpretation, emphasis and practice. With CND moving to prepare ‘operational recommendations’ for consideration at UNGASS 2016, the central question is what ‘operational recommendations’ UNGASS 2016 could realistically make, given the politics of the issues concerned, that would strengthen the public health approach to global drug policy? This concept note identifies some areas where common ground might emerge, and asks what steps would need to be taken to make that happen.