Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto addresses the audience during a special session on global strategy in the war on drugs at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, United States on April 19, 2016. Picture: Mexico Presidency/ Handout via Reuters

New York - The first United Nations special session on illegal drugs in more than a generation appeared headed for the reefs on Tuesday, as world leaders arrived with clashing visions on the best way forward and hopes of a consensus on reversing the old policies of crack-down and criminalisation faded.

When the three-day meeting ends on Thursday, delegates will leave New York with little more than a sprawling 24-page “outcomes” document paying occasional, vaguely worded lip service to the notion that the global war on drugs declared by the UN in 1998 may have failed, while still upholding all existing interdiction treaties and making scant concrete commitments on a change of approach.

Still, that there will have been any discussion at all on the world stage of alternatives to the previously accepted dogma of eliminate-and-incarcerate will nonetheless be seen by some as a step forward.

“All sorts of seeds were planted that will mature and blossom in coming years,” Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, said of the outcomes document, which was largely negotiated more than a month ago in Vienna.

His group orchestrated the release on the eve of the summit of an open letter to the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, urging an end to the war on drugs.

Signed by figures such as Sir Richard Branson and presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders, it stated: “The drug control regime that emerged during the last century has proven disastrous for global health, security and human rights.”

On Tuesday, activists dressed in clothes from the 1920s Prohibition era in America greeted delegates to the summit on New York's First Avenue with copies of a faux newspaper called the Post-Prohibition Times that carried the letter on its front page and the names of all the signatures inside.

Countries in Central and South America are among those most urgently seeking a change of direction, not least because the interdiction policies attempted so far have disproportionately hurt their societies.

“In this so-called war on drugs, countries such as Guatemala have borne the brunt, by coping with the unfair burden of the loss of human lives,” President Jimmy Morales Cabrera of Guatemala told the meeting.

“One of the most important changes that the current drug policy needs is that we give priority to reducing demand rather than focusing solely on reducing supply. We must make the balance and comprehensiveness of drug policy a reality.”

On the other end of the spectrum, however, China made its own attachment to repressive anti-drugs regimes abundantly clear.

“The Chinese government attaches great importance to anti-narcotics,” State Councillor Guo Shengkun declared in the UN's General Assembly chamber.

“For years, we have carried out the people's campaign against drugs and achieved notable progress. In the past decade, we cracked down on more than one million cases of drug crime and seized 751 tons of drugs.”

Russia also led resistance to any serious reconsideration of the UN's original mission set in 1998 of ridding the planet of drugs.

The faltering progress will be especially disappointing to those focused on expanding treatment and assistance options for drug abuse and moving away from criminalising it.

“The emphasis needs to be on helping people getting out of the problem of drug use rather than punishing them for being in it. I think the opportunity has been 100 percent missed,” Charles Gore, president of the London-based World Hepatitis Alliance, who was attending as an observer, lamented.

He was dismissive of the final document.

“It represents a tinkering around the edges more than a fundamental reshaping of where we need to get to as a world on drug policy. They talk about this as if it's about individual and public health when in fact the truth is it's still about crime and criminalisation.”