At the annual UN General Assembly meeting held in New York, presidents from around the world have the chance to state their views on the key international issues of the day. Not surprisingly, the crisis in Syria, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the Millennium Development Goals took center stage this year. Yet a careful viewing of the speeches of the Latin American presidents illustrates the growing voice of Latin American leaders calling for meaningful reform of drug control policies.
Kofi Annan Secretary General of the United Nations, Fernando Henrique Cardoso
05 November 2013
Each year, hundreds of thousands of people around the world die from preventable drug-related disease and violence. Millions of users are arrested and thrown in jail. Globally, communities are blighted by drug-related crime. Citizens see huge amounts of their taxes spent on harsh policies that are not working. But despite this clear evidence of failure, there is a damaging reluctance worldwide to consider a fresh approach. The Global Commission on Drug Policy is determined to help break this century-old taboo. See IDPC Press Release.
Major divisions over the global "war on drugs" have been revealed in a leaked draft of a UN document setting out the organisation's long-term strategy. The draft, written in September shows there are serious divisions over the longstanding US-led policy promoting prohibition as an solution to the problem. Instead, a number of countries are pushing for the "war on drugs" to be seen in a different light, placing greater emphasis on treating drug consumption as a public health problem, rather than a criminal justice matter. (See also: Drug control policies are changing: Why? And why has it taken so long?)
The United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs in 2016 is intended to provide states with the opportunity to openly debate the future of international drug policies. An event at UN headquarters in New York discussed precisely what preparations are necessary to make sure the UNGASS accomplishes this objective.
The extent to which the ongoing drug-control reforms across the Americas are pushing the boundaries of the global legal framework laid down in three UN drug-control conventions has become a delicate issue. The decriminalization of possession for personal use in several Latin American countries and the establishment of a supervised injection room in Vancouver, Canada have already triggered protracted legal disputes with the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the quasi-judicial organ for the conventions’ implementation.
In a press conference at the United Nations in New York on October 9, US official William Brownfield laid the groundwork for a new US approach to international drug policy, pointing to the changing political landscape on drug regulation in the Americas.
Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield called for "flexible" interpretations of international drug control treaties at the United Nations in New York City, citing marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington.
The UN's top narcotics official said on Wednesday that recent votes by US states to legalize marijuana have put America in deeper violation of the international conventions that guide drug policy around the world. Earlier this month, voters in Oregon, Alaska, and Washington DC legalized the recreational use and sale of marijuana. Similar ballot initiatives have already passed and taken effect in Colorado and Washington.
UN forums in recent years have witnessed more and more governments expressing their frustrations with the failing global war on drugs. This failure goes way beyond just the goals of drug control systems to reduce illicit drug production and use. The key driver of calls for change has been the catastrophic negative impacts of the war on drugs on public health, human rights, development and security.
Conditioning Alternative Development (AD) participation to previous eradication should be abandoned as a policy, since it has proved to be counterproductive. As long as the amount of hectares eradicated remains the main indicator for success, sustainable development loses. The voice of the primary stakeholders will be represented in the preparations for UNGASS through the organisation of a Global Forum of Producers of Prohibited Plants. Their participation in the design and implementation of development policies are fundamental.
"There must be no new thinking and no new ideas." This statement is not necessarily one that you might expect from an intergovernmental forum on a hot topic of international policy - except perhaps when that policy is about drugs. This statement sadly, but also neatly, encapsulates the sense of frustration that I can often feel at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) - the annual meeting of the UN on all matters related to drug control, which took place last month in Vienna.
Global disagreement over drug policies provides an important opportunity to reconsider the effectiveness of existing counternarcotics policies, address their problematic side effects, and propose evidence-based alternative strategies. Because of the differences in attitudes on drug policy around the world, a substantial revision of existing counternarcotics treaties is unlikely at UNGASS 2016. (See also: Improving global drug policy: Comparative perspectives and UNGASS 2016)
In the West few politicians have been ready to admit the drug war’s failure—even as they quietly moderate their policy. They need to be honest with their own voters about the misery it has caused. Only then can they make a good case to the rest of the world that drug addicts need treatment, not prison, and that supply should be managed, not suppressed. A UN meeting next year to take a fresh look at the international conventions that shape national drug laws would be an excellent place to start. The first drug war caused devastation enough. For history to repeat itself would be a tragedy.