Civil society letter to president Obama regarding the US position towards UNGASS
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
NW Washington, DC 20600
cc: Michael Botticelli, William Brownfield
Dear Mr. President:
In April, the United Nations will hold a "General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem" (UNGASS), its highest-level drug policy meeting since 1998. US agencies have played a leading role on the global stage as UNGASS approaches, promoting important agendas such as alternatives to incarceration, public health approaches, and human rights reforms.
In key respects, however, we the undersigned NGOs believe the current US position for UNGASS takes a short-term approach, stopping short of the crucial reforms called for by UN agencies and US allies, while failing to address new realities. We believe a stronger US stance on these issues would leave a legacy in global drug policy that is better aligned to the direction you've steered domestic policy.
We therefore call for the following steps to guide the US as UNGASS approaches, and in foreign policy for the remainder of your administration.
Acknowledge the Ramifications of New Drug Policies
With marijuana legalization enacted in Uruguay, four US states and the District of Columbia, and likely soon in Canada and several more US states, tensions in the international drug control regime have increased. Furthermore, world leaders have begun to raise fundamental questions about drug control policies in their larger sense, particularly in Central and South America where the illicit drug trade has helped to fuel civil instability and insecurity, threatening governance and driving problems such as violence and refugee flows.1
The US has called for nations to have the right to experiment with new drug policies, an important step forward.2 However, the US's position with respect to the three UN drug control conventions is likely to face shrinking credibility internationally as legalization spreads to more states. This will especially be the case, if or when Congress moves to provide federal legality within the borders of states that have legalization statutes.3 We therefore urge the US to:
- Clarify that "commitment to the three UN drug conventions," as called for in the preliminary US UNGASS document4, does not mean that these treaties, written variously between 27 and 55 years ago, should remain unchanged.5 Instead, the UNGASS should include a healthy debate on how the conventions might be updated for current times.
- Provide clear support for appointing a UN "Expert Advisory Group" to study tensions that have arisen in the international drug control regime due to marijuana legalization and other issues, and to lay out the range of options for moving forward.6
Stand Up for Human Rights
- Assert that a nation's right to choose drug policies should be constrained by international human rights norms; and that in cases of irreconcilable conflict, human rights principles, which are at the core of the United Nations Charter, should take priority, a principle noted by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.7
- Call for an end to the death penalty for drug offenses, and for the UN and member states to take measures discouraging it. We note that several European governments have terminated assistance to drug enforcement programs in some countries that have the death penalty for drug offenses, and UNODC has likewise published guidance indicating that assistance to drug enforcement programs should be restricted under such circumstances.8
- Promote vigorous measures to end the racial disparities that plague drug enforcement programs around the globe, in light of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.9
- Assert that drug policies should respect the right of indigenous peoples "to practice... their cultural traditions and customs," as called for in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.10
- Call for an evaluation of international drug policies with regard to children and young people, in light of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – in particular how incarceration and other punitive policies may impact on the right of children "to know and be cared for by [their] parents" and to "full and harmonious development of [the] personality."11
Call for a People-Centered Approach to Drug Policy
We commend the US statement that "[p]eople who use drugs should receive support, treatment and protection, rather than be punished."12 To this end we urge the US to:
- Explicitly endorse harm reduction – a necessary element in any public health approach to substance issues – and call for a shifting of resources to fund harm reduction in particular, as well as voluntary traditional substance use services.13 Among the bodies calling for evidence-based measures to prevent the spread of blood-borne diseases are WHO, UNODC, UNAIDS, UNDP, the UN General Assembly, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the European Union, and PEPFAR.14
- Champion the expansion of syringe exchange on the global stage, as a centrally needed harm reduction measure to stem the global epidemics of HIV and Hepatitis C.15
- Assert that the UN's Sustainable Development Goals should both inform and constrain drug policy.16 In lieu of criminalizing subsistence-level farmers and eradicating drug crops, emphasize the establishment of realistic sources of income for the communities affected by illicit growing, while seeking buy-in for the relevant policies from them.17
- Call for a formal revision of the metrics used to evaluate drug control policies, which currently consist of a small set of narrow indicators focused primarily on reducing the demand and supply of illegal drugs. Drug policy metrics should instead prioritize indicators that provide specific evidence on the health, peace and security, development, and human rights impacts of drugs and drug policies on communities.18
Take a Stronger Stance on Criminal Justice Reform
- In addition to promoting alternatives to incarceration, encourage bolder steps away from the punitive and criminalization-based model for use and possession of drugs, in line with the recommendations of a variety of UN agencies including UNAIDS, WHO, UNFPA, UNCHR, UNDP, UNESCO, UNODC, ILO, UNICEF, OHCHR, UN Women, as well as the World Bank, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, OAS, and UNASUR.19
- Urge UN member states to reform sentences and other criminal justice practices, in order to reverse the global trend toward greater incarceration rates.20
- Take steps to stem the unprecedented growth in incarceration of women for drug offenses, the majority of whom are in prison for low-level crimes, often committed to support families.21
- Call for public health approaches that encourage pregnant women with substance issues to seek health care and treatment, instead of criminal prosecutions that can discourage women in that situation from seeking the care which they and their families need.22
- Diversify the range of alternatives to incarceration the US promotes internationally, including a cutting edge program that was the subject of a recent White House forum, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD).23
- Advocate that regulatory approaches be considered as part of the debate on new psychoactive substances, as opposed to strictly prohibitionist approaches.
An Open Dialogue
- Use the US's influence at the UN to ensure that this UNGASS affords a true opportunity for an open and broad-ranging debate on the full set of drug policy issues of concern in the world today, and how to change drug policy, keeping faith with the intentions of the governments which requested that this UNGASS be held.24
- To that end, assert that the UNGASS Outcomes Document should be finalized at the UNGASS, rather than having de facto ommission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) meeting.
- Work for and support the inclusion and participation of civil society organizations, youth, women, minorities, indigenous communities, drug users, communities with low-level drug trade involvement, and other affected groups, in the development, implementation, and evaluation of new drug policies. This should include the UNGASS, future CND meetings, and other drug policy venues, as well as meetings of concerned agencies such as UNDP, UNAIDS, WHO, OHCHR and others.
- Work to have such UN agencies accorded greater centrality and authority in UN deliberations on drug policy. Similarly, direct that US bureaus such as USAID, the Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator, and Democracy, Human Rights & Labor, take on greater involvement and authority in US foreign policy and diplomacy on drug issues.
As the April 2016 UNGASS approaches, we urge you to take the opportunity this time in history affords, to point the world toward more humane and successful drug policies, as your administration has done for US domestic drug policies. Your leadership today for global drug policy reform will further the goals of health, safety, and welfare, consistent with individual freedom, the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.