Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

On a downer

The United Nations has chosen to keep the war on drugs going — but it can’t win.

Readers of the Los Angeles Times last week received some unexpected news about a major shift in the attitude of the United Nations towards the decriminalization of cannabis. According to the paper, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) was set to announce a more tolerant approach at a major meeting in New York City. But although the meeting was real, the policy shift was not. The announcement was a hoax, and pointedly timed for 20 April (‘4/20’), a day on which cannabis users celebrate and promote their choice. The scam even included a well-constructed fake press release that quoted the (real) UNODC executive director Yury Fedotov as saying: “The science increasingly supports decriminalization and harm reduction over proscriptive, fear-based approaches.”

For those who advocate drug-law reform — a group that includes a sizeable number of scientists — the truth was a lot less encouraging. The comments that Fedotov made at last week’s UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) were certainly less quotable. In a tweet he noted: “#UNGASS outcome doc reaffirms joint responses to world drug problem based on agreed frameworks, #sharedresponsibility, intl cooperation”.

Despite hopes ahead of the meeting that nations would step back from the ‘war on drugs’ rhetoric that has defined international policy — and science — for decades, instead the UN blandly reformatted the existing status quo. Essentially, the message is still: ‘drugs are bad’.

This will disappoint the many readers of Nature who want to see a more evidence-based approach. And that disappointment is especially acute because hopes had been raised by a growing number of drug-policy experiments, such as legalization and decriminalization of cannabis in Uruguay and many US states.

If the overall message coming down from the highest levels remains the same, then so does the stance taken by those who fund research. Witness the struggles in the United States over cannabis studies: whereas some states permit citizens to openly smoke marijuana, researchers must wade through federal red tape to study it.

The harms that come from the current strategy of prevention through prohibition have been clearly demonstrated. Ahead of the meeting, researchers writing in The Lancet warned that the last UNGASS in 1998 made no distinction between drug use and drug misuse, leading to a focus on enforcement and a lack of focus on harm reduction (J. Csete et al. Lancet 387, 1427–1480; 2016).

Essentially, the message is still: ‘drugs are bad’.

This is not to say that drugs do not have risks or do not bring damage. They can, and do, destroy lives and damage societies. Legalization brings its own problems — as places that have rushed to embrace commercial marijuana are finding out. The question is: what can be done to reduce harm and damage without creating more problems? And how can researchers find those answers? In other words, what would a reformed — and scientifically grounded — drug policy look like?

In January, the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy sent an open letter to the UN, signed by high-profile scientists from across the world, to ask the UNGASS to reconsider the metrics of drug use. For too long, it said, countries have focused on a small number of metrics to judge the problem, including price, purity and levels of use in the general population. More-subtle indicators, such as treatment for drug-use disorders, drug-related murder and the proportion of prisoners jailed for non-violent drug crimes, might be better metrics to measure, they suggested.

It will not surprise many people that there is a disconnect between drug policy and drug research. But discussions of drug policy, such as at UNGASS 2016, also seem to be increasingly out of step with the situation on the streets. The true picture of illegal drug use is, for obvious reasons, frequently opaque. But illegal drug use is clearly not in retreat. The billions spent, and the lives lost, in fighting the war on drugs have not brought the promised victories, and they are not likely to if the current course is maintained.

At the 1998 UNGASS, delegates pledged to deliver “significant and measurable” reductions in demand for drugs by 2008. That meeting even used the slogan: “A drug-free world, we can do it”. The deadline has slipped, but the intention seems to remain the same. Who are they kidding?

Related links

Related links

Related links in Nature Research

The cannabis experiment 2015-Aug-19

Marijuana gears up for production high in US labs 2015-Mar-17

Legal highs: the dark side of medicinal chemistry 2011-Jan-05

Related external links

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

On a downer. Nature 532, 413–414 (2016).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing