Global drug policy is still deadly and ineffective

02 June 2014
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 If you actually read the treaties, while they do set firm limitations on the legal, "non-medical" or "non-scientific" sale of schedule drugs — limits that Uruguay, Colorado and Washington ignored when legalizing cannabis — they don’t otherwise obligate countries to penalize drug use. Even the 1988 convention, the harshest of the three, which instructs countries to criminalize use, still provides an out for states, allowing such laws only as they are "subject to its constitutional principles and the basic concepts of its legal system." This loophole has been used by the Dutch to argue legally for their coffee shops.

On April 19, Jannat Mir, a boy from Afghanistan, reportedly only 15 years old, was hanged in Dastgerd prison in Isfahan, Iran.

Along with five others killed that day, Jannat was a victim of Iran’s hardline war on drugs. According to activists, in the last four years, over 1,800 people have been executed for drug crimes in Iran, most without due process or access to proper legal representation.

A month before Jannat was killed, a world away, in Vienna, Yuri Fedotov, the United Nations’ drug czar, applauded the Iranians’ effort to combat the movement drug trafficking.

"Iran takes a very active role to fight against illicit drugs." Fedotov told reporters. "It is very impressive."

The UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), over which Fedotov presides, has maintained offices in Iran since 1999, and for good reason. Poppy production in neighboring Afghanistan is booming; this year, its exports are expected to account for 90 percent of the global heroin trade, and much of that will flow westward, through Iran, and end up in European markets. For centuries, drugs have seeped across the border, but today the problem is immense. Iran has over two million addicts, the most in the world. Methadone is theoretically available for well-connected users, but for the rest stigmatization, prison, and, for accused traffickers, the noose, await.

Executions, however, have not reduced the number of addicts.

"They appear to be targeting the most vulnerable of the population — the poor, the uneducated, very small time dealers, people who cannot get out of their sentence by bribery," Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran told VICE News. "It’s outrageous for UNODC to be complimentary."

Because the UNODC’s programs in Iran have been largely funded by European countries seeking to staunch the flow of heroin, their focus has been on trafficking, not human rights. With UNODC assistance, Iranian authorities seized 388 tons of opium last year, a figure Fedotov perplexingly cited again when VICE News asked him last week about the spree of executions, as if any quantity could help justify the slaughter.

"My advice to [Iranian officials] is to be more transparent," he said, referring to the legal proceedings surrounding executions for drug crimes. "In my own meetings with them, I keep telling them it’s even in their own interest to show more openness and transparency." One might argue it’s also in the interest of the convicted.

Fedotov insisted that in Iran UNODC focuses on regional drug control — that is, they aren’t literally pulling a stool from under the condemned at the gallows — but this hasn't stopped several European countries from withdrawing support. In 2011, Ireland cut off funding upon learning that 80 percent of its money was going towards the apprehension of suspected traffickers, rather than efforts like harm reduction.

Afghanistan's opium production is set to break records this year — a booming illicit economy in a country with few opportunities.

Still, the UN has come a long way since 1998, when the General Assembly set the farcical goal of "eliminating or significantly reducing the illicit cultivation of coca bush, the cannabis plant, and the opium poppy by the year 2008." Of course, by 2008, UNODC's own figures estimated that opium production had doubled and cocaine production had increased by 20 percent.

The UN's prohibitionist resolve can be traced to three conventions that for 50 years have provided the backbone of the global War on Drugs. The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotics, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Drugs, and the 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs are the basis for the drug scheduling regime that nearly every country uses and the penalties they chose to enforce. All three were established with considerable input from prohibitionists, often American, who from the start worked to decouple drug addiction from the World Health Organization, the health arm of the UN, and place it in the hands of law enforcement. Though the opening line of the 1961 convention says the treaty system should be foremost "concerned with the health and welfare of mankind," that clearly has not happened.

Since their inception, powerful governments and the US in particular have wielded the conventions and the war on drugs as a way to exert power and influence, and punish and control their population. Only ten years ago, Iran put to death fewer than a hundred people annually. Since then, hardliners in the judiciary have timed executions as a morbid spectacle to deter dissent. Hundreds were sent to the gallows after protests in 2009 and 2010, and again following the election of moderate president Hassan Rouhani last year. Even as Iran made overture to the West — and, in fact, because of those gestures — executions rose more than 600 percent between 2005 and 2011.

“The treaties do not ask the countries to apply the death penalty, but they do ask for severe sanctions, then leave it to the countries to decide what sanctions to apply,” Martin Jelsma, Drugs and Democracy Program Coordinator at the Transnational Institute told VICE News. “So there is a co-responsibility of the treaty regimes that human rights violations are committed in the name of drug control.”

"Drug policy can’t be the same in the entire world"

In 1961, governments were told to cut off "non-medical" and "non-scientific" supply of natural substances like cannabis, the coca leaf, and opium, along with their traditional non-Western uses. The second convention added constraints on synthetic psychedelics and pharmaceuticals like speed and classes of downers. Though they were playing catch-up, 1971 was not yet the age of bath salts and p2p molecular lessons.

For decades, with few exceptions, countries operated under the assumption that breaching the convention, which in effect meant breaking with how powerful countries interpreted the conventions, would spell diplomatic and economic death. Such draconian readings of the conventions were further cemented in bilateral aid deals pioneered by the US.

The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the conventions’ quasi-judicial enforcement body, was initially intended to simply govern the global supply of pain medicine. Instead, at the prompting of the US, it began to be employed as a sort of cranky peanut gallery to castigate countries that questioned interdiction.

Four decades years after the Netherlands first allowed small sales of marijuana, the INCB was still haranguing the Dutch this March, accusing them of running coffee shops "in contravention of the provisions of the international drug control conventions."

After Uruguay legalized cannabis, INCB president Raymond Yans accused the government in Montevideo of having a "pirate attitude," to which Uruguayan President Jose "Pepe" Mujica replied "tell this old guy not to lie… let him come to Uruguay and meet with me whenever he wants."

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, was commended in the board’s 2012 annual report for having "developed a comprehensive national drug control strategy" — a strategy so laudable it prominently features the public beheadings of alleged traffickers. In that report, however, the INCB made no mention of executions in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else in the world.

Despite assurances from UNODC that safe injection sites are in compliance with the conventions, INCB has scolded countries like Canada for using them, arguing they encourage drug use.

In a final, karmic denouement, years after stacking their board, the US now finds itself the target of the INCB’s wrath. "Stop this nonsense," said Yans of legalization in Colorado and Washington. In a statement that should have enraged the Tea Party, Yans told "the Government of the United States to ensure that the treaties are fully implemented on the entirety of its territory."

But in fact, if you actually read the treaties, while they do set firm limitations on the legal, "non-medical" or "non-scientific" sale of schedule drugs — limits that Uruguay, Colorado and Washington ignored when legalizing cannabis — they don’t otherwise obligate countries to penalize drug use. Even the 1988 convention, the harshest of the three, which instructs countries to criminalize use, still provides an out for states, allowing such laws only as they are "subject to its constitutional principles and the basic concepts of its legal system." This loophole has been used by the Dutch to argue legally for their coffee shops, and in effect by several states, like Alaska, where possession of up to 4 ounces of marijuana within one’s home was decriminalized on privacy grounds as far back as 1975. Portugal’s 2001 decision to decriminalization all drug use likewise availed itself of the conventions’ legal malleability.

In 2011, Bolivia went a step further, withdrawing entirely from the 1961 Convention and re-acceding the following year with the reservation that they be allowed to maintain a legal market for coca leaves, which are traditionally chewed in the country. Over objections of 15 countries, including the US, Russia, and interestingly, the Netherlands and Portugal, the requisite two-thirds of member states approved the move, and today Bolivia is the only country to have actually rewritten their obligations under the treaty, rather than arguing for a new interpretation. The INCB predictably ostracized the move, claiming it threatened “the integrity of the international drug control system.”

The problem with the conventions is not so much what they say but that it’s always been easier to accommodate (or take advantage of) them by ratcheting up prohibition instead of risking diplomatic limbs by raising human rights. It doesn't help that debates over them happen in the distant bubble-world of Vienna, where dissent is homogenized during the UNODC’s consensus process. In December, a leaked UNODC draft document highlighted internal disagreement among member states, but by the time it was finalized in March, those voices had been muffled. For smaller countries, it’s a simple decision to maintain cordial diplomatic relations.

In recent years it’s been Russia, whom Fedotov represented for decades as diplomat, that has taken the prohibitionist baton from the US.

"Pressure from the Russians is higher than ever," said Jelsma. "That makes negotiations very difficult because they are not willing to accept any language on harm reduction or decriminalization. They are obstructing the global discourse."

Today's Russia looks a lot like the US in the 1980s. Facing a severe drug epidemic, the government has chosen a retrograde, prohibitionist approach, one it projects not only at home but in its sphere of influence, just as the US did in Latin America. Russia’s ban on opioid-substitution therapies like methadone has led to rates of HIV infection that dwarf the rest of Europe's. Last year, the government reported 55,000 new cases of the virus, over half due to intravenous drug use. Within days of annexing Crimea, even before basic services had been restored, authorities announced methadone clinics would be shut there. One UN study found that opioid replacement could pay for itself twelve times over by preventing costs associated with law and order, jail, theft and healthcare. Russia, like most countries, has a political, not human, agenda when it comes to drugs, one the conventions are happy to oblige.

But Russia's meddling in Ukraine has forced them to temporarily set aside their prohibitionist grandstanding, and could open a window as the UN General Assembly prepares to meet in 2016 for a special session on drug policy. There’s little hope or wish of overhauling the conventions. But as more countries test their legal limits, a critical mass could lead to a General Assembly resolution redefining their meaning and intent.

"We are proposing a flexible interpretation of the conventions," Milton Romani Gerner, Uruguay’s Ambassador to the Organization of American States and the country's former Secretary General for Drugs, told VICE News. "There are countries that interpret the conventions by imposing the death penalty and there are countries in Vienna that defend its use on minors involved with drugs. We have an interpretation to the other side, to the side of liberty and rights."

In Latin America, the conventions became vessels for politics and allowed for the US to insinuate itself regionally outside of the axioms of the Cold War via policies of prohibition and eradication.

Documents released by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden show that even today the US is leveraging agreements between the Drug Enforcement Administration and other countries to intercept and monitor their phone calls. In the Bahamas, the NSA could be archiving every cell phone conversation on the island.

Reading the conventions more liberally frees countries like Uruguay not only from policies of interdiction but from the meddling of outsiders.

"We are not proposing or planning the reform of the conventions," said Romani Gerner. "But drug policy can’t be the same in the entire world."

The fight, says Romani Gerner, is against inertia.

An estimated 100 billion dollars is spent globally every year on drug enforcement measures. The US in particular, even as it adapts to changing domestic mores, is stepping up its deployment of armed police and military to track down drug traffickers in Latin America. The recipients of defense largesse will fight tooth and nail to maintain a militarized war on drugs. US government drug negotiators have insisted the conventions remain in place.

Meanwhile, 1 in 5 of the an estimate 2.2 million American prisoners remain locked up on drug convictions, some in states where their crimes no longer mean jail time. As of 2012, 3,279 prisoners were sentenced to die in jail for drug offenses. Change at a national and international is glacial.

In Iran, it's unclear to what extent international pressure makes a difference when it comes to human rights. But UNODC's presence in the country at the very least gives tacit approval to a government that puts to death juveniles for drug offenses.

Radio Azadi, a local Afghan affiliate of US-funded Radio Liberty, managed to track down Jannat’s family. "Jannat Mir was a ninth grade schoolboy who left Afghanistan [for] Iran two years ago," his brother Nazok told the station. "He was arrested by the Iranian authorities and sentenced to hang for drug-trafficking. He didn't have access to lawyer (sic) and the Iranian authorities didn't allow the family to take the body back to Afghanistan. So they had to bury Jannat Mir in Isfahan."

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford

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