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“Blah Blah Blah”: The Fallacy of United Nations Drug Summits

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Stefano Tijerina, a lecturer in management and the Chris Kobrack Research Fellow in Canadian Business History at the University’s of Maine’s Business School.


Blah Blah Blah” was the conclusion of environmental activist Greta Thunberg after the recent 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. As Thunberg’s response indicates, thirty years of constructive climate dialogue has resulted in few changes—just the kicking of the status-quo can down the road—even though twenty eight climate summits since 1995 have spent billions of dollars on travel, salaries, marketing, public relations, lobbying and other resources. All of this with little to show. Dreams drowned in “empty words and promises” and no concrete results, as Thunberg said.

The same lack of progress could be said about the United Nations and its conferences about drug control. Instead of using children and young adults for their propaganda machine, though, they exploit the victims of the illicit drug trade in developing countries to advance their anti-drug rhetoric and empty promises.

UN 1965 opium tracking

At the laboratory of the Division of Narcotic Drugs of the UN Secretariat, located in Geneva, Dr. Olav Braenden (Norway), Chief of the Laboratory (left), and Mrs. Jane Beck (United Kingdom), indicate the regions where opium is produced in 1965. Image courtesy of the United Nations. UN Photo/PP, (Unique identifier: UN7632427).

The multilateral institutions and the leading Western nations who built illicit drug trade regulations have met since 1961. And they have consistently kicked the can down the road; all while dramatizing the need and urgency for drug control initiatives around the world. Coincidentally (or perhaps not)—like with climate change initiatives—debates about justice and inequality have split the drug control agenda between advanced industrial economies and developing countries. Wealthy countries drive the agenda, but sacrifices always seem to be expected from poorer countries for the salvation of humanity. Looking back, little has changed; this seems to be the general dynamic of United Nations initiatives.

At the United Nations summit in New York City in 1961, nearly one hundred nations agreed to the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and resolved that “addiction to narcotic drugs constitutes a serious evil for the individual and is fraught with social and economic danger to mankind.” In 1971, nations gathered in Vienna to sign the Adoption of a Protocol on Psychotropic Substances, which observed that “rigorous measures are necessary to restrict the use of such substances to legitimate purposes.” The next year, in Geneva, they once again gathered to amend the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

UN 1961 drug control conference

The first of many United Nations international drug summits. View of the conference room on January 24, 1961, at the UN in New York during the Conference for the Adoption of a Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Image courtesy of the United Nations. UN Photo/MB, (Unique Identifier UN7465272).

Sixteen years later the United Nations would once again bring together member nations for the Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances in Vienna. The final document was:

Deeply concerned by the magnitude of and rising trend in the illicit production of, demand for and traffic in narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, which pose a serious threat to the health and welfare of human beings and adversely affect the economic, cultural and political foundations of society.

By that point, cocaine had inundated the global markets and replaced marijuana as the most desired illicit substance by Western consumers. Moreover, the epicenter of drug-related criminal organizations had shifted from Europe to the Americas. The dynamics of the market in illicit drugs changed dramatically between 1961 and 1988. Drugs had become a global problem that had already cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people—particularly in the supply side markets that sacrificed innocent lives on behalf of the implementation of the policies inspired by the first global summit.

The empty drug-control promises were quickly overshadowed by the escalation of drug-related crimes, corruption, white-collar crime, and never-before-seen increases in illicit drug production and consumption. According to the UN, the world had failed to “combat drug use through coordinated international intervention.” On the contrary, the number of drug users in the world rapidly increased.

Similarly, the UN’s official page about its drug control conferences laments that the world had also failed to “limit the possession, consumption, trade, distribution, import, export, manufacture and production of drugs only for medical and scientific purposes.” Moreover, the collective goal of “fight[ing] against drug trafficking through international cooperation to deter drug traffickers” had failed. Instead, a new generation of narcotraffickers across South America and South East Asia rose to prominence under the watch of the international community.

The result was the 1990 emergency United Nations summit in New York City for, the Seventeenth Special Session of the General Assembly that focused specifically on narcotic drugs. The global concern, according to the United Nations, was the worldwide “growing scale of illicit demand, production, supply, trafficking and distribution of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances.” At the end of the session, the United Nations proclaimed that “the period 1991–2000 would be the United Nations Decade Against Drug Abuse.”

UNDCP drug control program in Morocco

Dogs being trained to sniff out illegal drugs in Morocco in 1991. The project was supported by United Nations Drug Control Program in Morocco. Image courtesy of the United Nations, UN Photo/J. Sailas, (Unique Identifier: UN7454959)

Eight years later things remained largely the same. Drug abuse across the world escalated even more. The can had been kicked down the road many more times, and, in response to this rising humanitarian emergency, another session was organized. The Twentieth Session of the General Assembly in 1998 focused specifically on the “world drug problem.”

By this point, I would argue, the situation was out of control. The Decade Against Drug Abuse seemed at that point pure rhetoric and propaganda to secure the perpetual status quo of a war on drugs. New “strategies, methods, and practical activities” were proposed, in addition to a collective agreement about “special measures to strengthen international cooperation in the face of the problem of illicit drugs.”

In 2016, the latest United Nations summit took place in New York City. The Thirtieth Special Session of the General Assembly focused, once again, exclusively on the “world drug problem.” Yet another plan of action “to combat the World Drug Problem” was agreed upon and another empty promise was signed in the form of the comprehensive document, “Our Joint Commitment to Effectively Addressing and Countering the World Drug Problem.

Today, five years later, Colombia has record cocaine production; the opioid epidemic is on the rise; and marijuana is being legalized incrementally, in market after market. The continued prevalence and popularity of various substances despite endless wars on drugs clearly reflect the fallacy of United Nations summits—and the failure of the world to regulate itself. There seems to be too much money on the global market’s table to really enforce lasting and effective change in drug laws for the sake of humanity. The United Nations, instead, continues to “Blah Blah Blah” about drugs, as Thunberg might say.

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