UNGASS 2016: Q&A with Jean-Luc Lemahieu, Director of Policy Analysis and Public Affairs UNODC

Image: Wikipedia Commons/Creative Commons
Image: Wikipedia Commons/Creative Commons

The UN General Assembly will convene a Special Session (UNGASS) on what it calls “the world drug problem” from April 19-21, 2016, at UN Headquarters in New York (UNGASS 2016 website).

We had the opportunity to correspond via email with Jean-Luc Lemahieu, Director of Policy Analysis and Public Affairs at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and ask him a few questions just hours prior to UNGASS 2016.

The following is an unedited version of our email Q&A with Mr. Lemahieu:

CARBC: The UN does not appear to condone narcotic drug use outside of medical or scientific purposes – is that correct? If yes, does it support the criminalization of all non-medical and non-scientific narcotic drug use?

Jean-Luc Lemahieu: The drug control Conventions* do not allow for recreational use.  The aim is to protect the most vulnerable – those who regretfully will fall in problem use.  However, whereas the Conventions see no place for non-medical or scientific use, the Conventions do not consider personal use itself an illicit activity – this is up to the interpretation of the Member States and national legislation.  Depenalization is also accepted within the Conventions.  Evidently the member states can always decide to go further by altering the scheduling of certain illicit drugs. WHO does play a core advisory role to this end.  The growing perception in especially North America is that recreational use should be accepted for cannabis.  Interesting to this regard is to read the latest WHO report on cannabis (March 2016 [link: http://bit.ly/1qUBFgP]).  Also many countries around the globe, including within Latin America, still prefer a wider coverage instead of accepting the option of individual liberty as often expressed in the pro-lobby circles. Hence, Conventions might not change soon on this topic yet pressures are to increase on this international system with many more US States expected to opt for full legalization.

Jean-Luc Lemahieu, Director of Policy Analysis and Public Affairs at UNODC, 2013
Jean-Luc Lemahieu, Director of Policy Analysis and Public Affairs at UNODC, 2013

[CARBC] At the last Special Session in 1998, the members pledged for a “drug free” world by 2008.  The 2016 draft Outcome Document makes no such commitment.  Is the goal of a drug-free world over and, if so, what is the reason for this change?

[J-L L]There are many aspirational goals which intend to motivate and mobilize.  A ‘cancer free world’, a ‘wor[ld] without poverty’, ‘justice for all’,  and more recently the new 2030 Development Agenda.  Nobody truly believes that a world without cancer, equitable and just to all, ‘nobody left behind’, or a world without drugs is within reach.  Pro-lobby groups however love to turn the table around and make it much more than it is or was.   Fair, that is part of advocacy work.  The real issue which we hopefully all can stand behind is how can we prevent and not promote drug use which can, not necessarily for each and everybody, lead to problem use or other negative effects on families, communities and society at large.  Also crucial is to ensure that those getting to problem use are considered a health and not a criminal problem.  People come first.

[CARBC] You note that UNGASS 2016 “is not about assessing the ‘War on Drugs,’ which,” you write, “never has been framed, mentioned or asked for, in any of the UN Conventions.”  Yet the expression is ubiquitous – in the media, used by special interest groups, and laypeople alike.  Briefly, what is UNGASS 2016 about?

[J-L L] The ‘war on drugs’ has been a prime advocacy tool, is a great soundbite and fell well within press and others.  Correct that the concept itself is without base within the Conventions, one still needs to appreciate that especially in many Latin American countries the suffering from strong prohibitionist regimes has been palatable.  While the Conventions for instance do not ask for the incarceration of drugs users, many Latin prisons are still overburdened by poor individuals who should fall under health care instead of a prison regime.  There is a lot of work ahead of us in going back to the essence of the Conventions, promoting a balanced approach and proportionality of the crime justice system. Beyond this, as with many other criminal activities, the linkage with the 2030 development agenda is equally obvious.  Both vulnerability and opportunity is to be tackled.  Poverty provides vulnerability but there is no causal effect – not all poor are drug users, or worse small criminals (‘not all poor Afghan farmers cultivate opium, and not all opium farmers are poor’).  Nonetheless this vulnerability needs to understood and corrected through pointed development interventions.  In the same time the corruptive and abusive opportunity who exploit the vulnerabilities need to be taken on too – through an equitable justice system, transparent governance and predictable rule of law.  This is what UNGASS 2016 is about. 

For more information, here is a pdf draft copy of Mr. Lemahieu’s presentation at the 2015 Symposium on International Drug Control Policy in China titled “Improving Global Drug Policy: The importance of UNGASS – the contextual setting


*  the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 as amended by the 1972 Protocol, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971 and the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988 (see: http://bit.ly/1qWHKth)

A nationwide survey on substance use

This summer I got an email from a concerned nurse. In June, the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse, and UBC’s Mass Gathering Medicine Interest Group released their recommendations for Preventing Drug- and Alcohol-related Harms at Music Festivals. As a nurse who works with live music events, she was encouraged to see that many of the recommendations were already being implemented locally, but wanted to talk about strategies to reducing barriers that some festivals were encountering when seeking to offer substance testing at events.

This nurse was looking to start conversations with communities and event holders about how to standardize access to recommendations on this list, with full support of police and stakeholders to create safer events, leading to less drain on the emergency services in the communities they are held. But where do we even start?

Shambhala Music Festival has set the bar for harm reduction. For many years, the Shambhala music festival has provided a safe space where attendees can bring unidentified substances to volunteer care providers, where they are tested using a chemical testing kit. The goal is one of harm reduction, aiming to reduce consumption of dangerous contaminated substances, as well as create better education and dialogue surrounding substance use at big events.

However, this isn’t so easy at many large events. Earlier this summer, the Evolve Festival, another electronic music event in Halifax, experienced a challenge. Similar to Shambhala, Evolve had planned to offer substance testing at the festival. However, days before the event, insurance providers threatened to shut down the festival if drug testing was offered. Despite evidence that substance testing in festival settings may help reduce overdoses and improve education for substance users, there are still legal barriers surrounding the use of testing kits. In response to testing kit use at festivals, the Nova Scotia RCMP stated that “The RCMP is all about public safety. However, we don’t support any initiatives that will condone illicit drug use, and these kits do condone illicit drug use”.

Fear of losing insurance coverage, concern about RCMP support and legal barriers surrounding the use of testing kits, as well as a lack of clear policy about this harm reduction measure, make it difficult for festivals and events to offer harm reductions services that include substance testing.

Enter the conversation with my concerned nurse colleague. Together, we struggled to think about potential solutions. Anyone who has worked at, or attended, large music events can tell you that substance use is common, and, promising harm reduction strategies are not always present. So, how do we bridge the gap demonstrating a need for better access to testing sites and improved education systems surrounding drugs? It seems that one of the barriers preventing change is a lack of good data demonstrating the patterns of use, perspectives and knowledge of young people surrounding illicit substances.

Together, we decided to address this problem. We created a nation-wide survey designed to assess the understanding, use, and opinions of young people concerning drugs. Our aim is to examine the perspectives of younger substance users, and determine whether there is the potential for better testing and education opportunities at large gatherings. It is our hope that this survey will result in data that event and festival organizers can use in conversations with community stake-holders, agencies, insurance providers, security teams and patrons to help maximize opportunities for event safety. We also hope the findings will be of benefit to harm reduction organizations and educators who are looking to address gaps in young people’s knowledge of substance use.

You can take the survey HERE. It’s completely anonymous, and your identity will never be linked to your data. Your input could help improve the safety of recreational substance users both in festival settings and in other situations in the future.

There’s a real need for better harm reduction and education for young people surrounding substances. Let’s start talking about it.



Kimberly Girling is a Ph.D. candidate in Neuroscience at UBC with a strong interest in global health and accessible medicine. She has done extensive work with the Student Biotechnology Network in BC, and currently volunteers with the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition in Vancouver.


Stacey Forrester is a harm reduction nurse from Vancouver BC. She is involved in many projects aimed at creating health and increasing access to safer spaces, via education, feminism, and urban planning.

 **Please note that the material presented here does not necessarily imply endorsement or agreement by individuals at the Centre for Addictions Research of BC