The previous UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs in 1998—convened under the theme, “A drug-free world—we can do it!”—endorsed drug-control policies with the goal of prohibiting all use, possession, production, and trafficking of illicit drugs. This goal is enshrined in national laws in many countries. In pronouncing drugs a “grave threat to the health and wellbeing of all mankind”, the 1998 UNGASS echoed the foundational 1961 convention of the international drug-control regime, which justified eliminating the “evil” of drugs in the name of “the health and welfare of mankind”. But neither of these international agreements refers to the ways in which pursuing drug prohibition might affect public health. The war on drugs and zero-tolerance policies that grew out of the prohibitionist consensus are now being challenged on multiple fronts, including their health, human rights, and development impact.
The Johns Hopkins–Lancet Commission on Drug Policy and Health has sought to examine the emerging scientific evidence on public health issues arising from drug-control policy and to inform and encourage a central focus on public health evidence and outcomes in drug-policy debates, such as the important deliberations of the 2016 UNGASS on drugs. The Commission is concerned that drug policies are often coloured by ideas about drug use and dependence that are not scientifically grounded. The 1998 UNGASS declaration, for example, like the UN drug conventions and many national drug laws, does not distinguish between drug use and drug misuse. A 2015 report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, by contrast, emphasised that drug use “is neither a medical condition, nor does it necessarily lead to drug dependence”. The idea that all drug use is dangerous and evil has led to enforcement-heavy policies and has made it difficult to see potentially dangerous drugs in the same light as potentially dangerous foods, tobacco, and alcohol, for which the goal of social policy is to reduce potential harms.