Stakeholders Help United Nations Prepare for General Assembly Special Session

On February 10, 2016 Executive Director of Americans for Safe Access (ASA), Steph Sherer, and Michael Krawitz, Executive Director, Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access [VMCA] joined organizations from across the globe at at the UN Headquarters to continue preparations for the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS 2016) on drug policy to be held April 19th-21st.   This Informal, Interactive Stakeholder Consultation was held at the request of the President of the UN General Assembly. Krawitz and Sherer provided input for Member States. The outcome document from this event will be presented to member states in preparation for UNGASS 2016, urging that global policies on medical cannabis be included.

This unprecedented event represents a concerted commitment on behalf of interested signatory nations and the UN bureaucracy to engage non-governmental organizations [NGOs] around the world in an open dialog on drug issues. The last time the United Nations held a comprehensive drug summit was in 1998 and it would have been unimaginable having this dialog then. The slogan of that drug summit in 1998 was, “A Drug Free World, We Can Do It” with the goal of completely eliminating illegal drugs and drug trafficking. By contrast, this summit’s goals are focused more on reducing harm, minimizing risk, and maximizing medical access.

NGO’s, including Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access and Americans for Safe Access, have created a structure to help us better communicate with the United Nations system.  Krawitz and Sherer are members of  the New York NGO Committee.  The leadership team for the New York NGO Committee has created a Civil Society Task Force (CSTF).  The CSTF has 26 members - 18 regional representatives, and 8 representatives of affected populations.

The CSTF helped sort the applications the President of the UN General Assembly gathered from NGO’s around the world and made recommendations for round table speakers and opening presenters. This list consisted mostly of public health experts, human rights advocates, farmers, user groups, and medicinal activists with a noticeably lower representation from anti-drug warriors than has been seen in past UN meetings.

Lennice Werth, leader of Virginians Against Drug Violence, attended the meetings and remarked, “During the long day of interactive panels very few were primarily concerned with demand reduction and prevention, and no new ideas in this area were introduced.”  Those with these concerns seemed frustrated by the lack of results from past years’ efforts.  

A majority of attendees were eager to reduce incarceration for and the harms/risks of drug use.  This discussion included ideas concerning the development of new paradigms of non-judgmental treatment and care for vulnerable drug involved populations.  Specific concerns for children, women, and the addicted were at the forefront of these discussions and there seemed to be a near consensus in the room in support of abandoning long prison terms and overly intrusive police actions.

Steph Sherer presented (1:25) on behalf of the IMCPC during the first round table.  She expressed her hope that the UNGASS would focus on cannabis scheduling in the treaty and that the drug control system should deeply consider shifting the responsibility of ensuring medicinal access under the Single Convention from the International Narcotics Control Board to the World Health Organization [WHO]. Steph went on to demand that UNGASS put cannabis on the official agenda and create a plan forward to ensure safe access under the treaties. Steph concluded that the WHO process to critically review cannabis has stalled while 18 countries and two-thirds of the United States are already seeing a positive impact from cannabis as a medicine, pointing out the significant reduction in opiate overdose deaths.

In response to Steph, the moderator, an official in the World Health Organization’s New York office, pointed out that the WHO had proposed and tabled a document at their executive board that was then forwarded to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime [UNODC]. In this document it states, “The Committee requested that WHO begin collecting data towards a pre-review of cannabis, cannabis resin, extracts and tinctures to identify any therapeutic advantages that they may have compared to other therapeutics.”   This is the very first indication that there are plans to begin an actual critical review of cannabis.

It was a historic day for world-wide efforts on drug policy reform, and it is encouraging to see the international NGO community coming to consensus in accepting that the drug war has failed, while creating a new approach based on human rights and the moral imperative of improving the lives of drug users.

Attendees of ASA's National Medical Cannabis Unity Conference will have the opportunity to continue this crucial work by participating in peer-reviewing a document which will be submitted to the UN for inclusion in UNGASS.