NASW helps influence international drug policy

May 10, 2016

Photo from United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on international drug policy.

Photo from United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on international drug policy. Photo by Carrie Dorn.

The United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on international drug policy was held April 18-21. This UNGASS brings together the international community and member countries of the United Nations to discuss principles and strategies to address the problem of drug use and drug trafficking throughout the world.

However, much of the agenda and discussions centered on the international crisis of consumption of illicit drugs, and coming to a consensus about the most effective approach to managing this crisis.

The meeting consisted of government delegations as well as members of civil society (non-governmental advocacy and drug policy experts).

In spite of the U.S.-led “War on Drugs” in the 1980s and the related excessive criminalization of drug use and mass incarceration, worldwide demand for illicit drugs has not diminished.

Many countries, including the United States, have begun to embrace and implement public health-decriminalization policies to reduce substance use and addiction. It is clear there is an emerging consensus that the public health perspective and protection of human rights should be paramount in global drug policy discussions.

NASW part of coalition that helped form U.S. drug policy recommendations

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) joined a coalition of U.S. organizations that held pre-UNGASS planning meetings with key government agencies such as the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. The purpose of these meetings was to craft coalition recommendations on drug policy that the U.S. government should take in its official UNGASS statement.

The priority position recommended by the coalition was decriminalization of drug use, harm reduction (such as needle exchange programs) and adopting an overall public health approach for managing the crisis.

NASW staff joined members of civil society organizations and attended UNGASS events in New York City. Staff was able to observe the General Assembly proceedings where nearly all UN member states made statements about their positions on drug policy and the need to curtail drug-use (and drug trafficking) in their countries.

NASW staff  also attended a major Round table discussion that featured the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the World Health Organization and others.

ONDCP’s Director Michael Botticelli emphasized that U.S. agencies are working toward evidence-based approaches to drug reforms and President Obama has proposed a $1-billion plan to expand treatment capacity, reform the criminal justice system to end punitive measure for low-level drug use and eliminate the stigma associated with addiction.

Obama’s plan would ultimately better address the public health consequences of use and reserve law enforcement resources for serious threats to public safety.  Representatives from under-resourced countries noted that not all states have the finances for such interventions and international collaboration is needed.

NIH Director Nora Volkow, M.D., emphasized that addiction is a disease of the brain that is well understood and is influenced by genetic and environmental stressors. Stress and trauma related to justice system involvement may only exacerbate the disease, Volkow said.

“Incarceration is in no way a solution to a substance use disorder,” she said.

Health practitioners, scientists and policy makers now know that recovery is possible using evidence-based interventions. However, the political will to implement strategies based on evidence must be conjured on the international front.

In addition, NASW staff attended and participated in non-UN sponsored presentations offered by representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) , Open Society Foundations, Human Rights Watch, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Latino Justice PRLDEF, the United Methodist Church and the U.S. Department of Justice. These so-called “side-events” were critical and informative for the coalition of civil society organizations.

More work needs to be done to advance progressive ways to address drug use, trafficking

The important outcome of UNGASS was that advocates and government representatives acknowledged that some successes have been made to advance progressive and evidence-based drug policies, but there is much more that needs to be done.  For example, NASW and others were disappointed that harm reduction, or safer drug use approaches, are not widely accepted across the international community.

More disconcerting is that in China, Malaysia, Indonesia and some other countries the death penalty continues to be a method of punishment for some drug offenses and drug users are subject to harsh punishment.

On the other end of the spectrum, countries are experimenting with fully decriminalizing personal drug use. The Portugal Model for managing drug use disorders is held up as a successful evidence-based example of implementing a public health response to a national drug use crisis. Other like Canada, Uruguay, and to some degree some U.S. states such Colorado and Washington are loosening restrictions for medical marijuana or personal use of cannabis,.

Joining the Drug Policy Coalition is important to NASW and to its membership. For many years we have supported the harm reduction model, which is consistent with a human rights approach to drug policy.

More importantly, harm reduction has been proven to address the secondary consequences of drug use such as HIV, Hepatitis C and other infectious diseases.  When the stigma associated with drug use decreases, as well as the threat of criminal justice involvement, individuals  will likely have an opportunity to access health care and substance use disorder treatment appropriately.

For more information on this issue contact NASW Social Justice and Human Rights Manager Mel Wilson at or NASW Senior Practice Associate Carrie Dorn at

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