Hopes for Global Drug Policy Reform Dashed at UN Assembly

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The United Nations’ special assembly on drug policy ended without significant changes to existing drug conventions despite a push for reform from Latin American countries seeking a less prohibitionist regime. With the huge obstacles to a new international consensus made apparent, reformist countries around the region instead look set to continue national level experiments with drug policy.

World leaders met at United Nations headquarters in New York City from April 19-21 to discuss global drug policy during the UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS). The event — held three years ahead of schedule after a 2012 request from Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala — offered a forum to debate and rethink the UN’s existing drug policies.

Currently, global drug policy is governed by three international drug control conventions, but these have come under criticism for their punitive prohibitionist approach and their failure to bring drug trafficking and consumption under control.  Calls for their reform have been growing for several years. 

However, the UNGASS revealed deep disagreements over international drug policy. The divide largely fell between countries in favor of shifting to a “humane approach” that deals with drug use as primarily a public health issue, versus those nations still favoring a strict law and order approach.

As expected, Latin American countries took the lead in advocating serious drug reform, reflecting frustration over the violence and corruption that the drug trade has caused wherever it has taken root in the region.

Latin America Leads the Charge

Numerous Latin America presidents addressed the assembly with urgent calls for reform, with the leaders of Mexico and Colombia, the two countries that have historically suffered the most from the drug trade, taking center stage.

In an April 19 speech, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto told delegates, “We should be flexible to change that which has not yielded results, the paradigm based essentially in prohibitionism, the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ … has not been able to limit production, trafficking or the global consumption of drugs.”

Peña Nieto also declared Mexico would be taking steps toward reform, telling the assembly: “I am giving voice to those who have expressed the necessity of changing the regulatory framework to authorize the use of marijuana for medical and scientific purposes.”

To that end, Peña Nieto introduced a 10-point proposal for classifying drug use as a public health issue and moving away from the criminalization of users. The following day he announced he would send to Mexico’s Congress a proposal to legalize marijuana-based medicines and increase the amount of marijuana decriminalized for personal use from 5 to 28 grams.

Peña Nieto’s sentiments were echoed by his Colombian counterpart Juan Manuel Santos, who also called for a move away from repressive and punitive drug policies to alternative approaches focused on human rights and public health.

“After so many lives that have been destroyed, after so much corruption and so much violence, after so many young people being marched off to jail, can we say that we have won the war (on drugs) or at least that we are winning it?” Santos said. “Unfortunately the answer is ‘no.'”

Support for drug policy reform also came from other leaders from around the region.

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, for instance, called for a more humane approach to drug control based on public health, saying “people, not substances” should be at the center of global drug policy.

“In this so-called war on drugs, countries like Guatemala have carried the worst burden, having suffered the injustice of lost human life,” Morales said as he denounced the ill effects the drug trade has had for countries located along major trafficking routes.

Morales, however, did not go as far as his predecessor Otto Pérez Molina, who had surprised the international community by advocating the decriminalization of drugs after taking office in 2012.

Speaking on April 21, Bolivian President Evo Morales added to calls for more humanistic drug policies while lambasting the “failed” anti-drug strategies promoted by the United States. He even went as far as advocating the dismantling of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), an agency Morales expelled from Bolivia in 2008.

Morales defended Bolivia’s traditional use of the coca leaf, the main ingredient in cocaine, and criticized the militarized approach to coca eradication. However, he added that Bolivia has no intention of legalizing drugs.

Among Caribbean nations at the UNGASS, Jamaica questioned why international law still classifies marijuana as if it were as dangerous as heroin. Jamaica decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2015, and created provisions for its medical, therapeutic, and religious use.

Consensus Sinks Outcome

Despite the impassioned pleas of Latin American leaders’ for a move away from the existing UN drug conventions’ emphasis on prohibition, those hoping for meaningful drug reform came away from the UNGASS frustrated.

On the special session’s opening day, member states adopted an “outcome document,” entitled “Our joint commitment to effectively addressing and countering the world drug problem” (pdf). The document, the result of months of advance negotiation in Vienna, Austria — home of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) — does not break with the framework of the UN’s current prohibitionist policies. Instead, it reaffirms a commitment to “promote a society free of drug abuse,” and recognized the three UN drug control treaties as “the cornerstone of the international drug control system.”

While the statement does acknowledge public health concerns and recognizes “alternative or additional measures with regard to conviction or punishment,” it does not discuss drug decriminalization or harm reduction, two central aspects of calls for reform. As a result, the “outcome document” has come under heavy criticism from drug policy advocates who say it amounts to little more than minor tweaks to the UN’s existing conventions.

A statement released by drug reform campaigners the Global Commission on Drug Policy (pdf) said: “The document does not acknowledge the comprehensive failure of the current drug control regime to reduce drug supply and demand. Nor does [it] account for the damaging effects of outdated policies on violence and corruption as well as on population health, human rights and well-being.”  

Former presidents turned drug policy critics also condemned the results of the assembly. Ex-Colombian President César Gaviria Trujillo said the UN’s aim of a drug-free society is “unrealistic, totally naïve, almost stupid,” while ex-Swiss premier Ruth Dreifuss said “the world community is not ready, is not willing, to have the change of politic that is absolutely necessary,” reported the Guardian.

The reason for the outcome document’s boilerplate wording and lack of meaningful reform reflects how UN drug policies are formed: consensus. 

Beyond Latin America, many nations continue to push for punitive, even draconian, anti-drug policies. Chief among these is Russia, which VICE News reports took an extremely intransigent stance during negotiations over the document’s text in Vienna. In addition to Russia, other drug hardliners include Indonesia, China, and Iran, all of which routinely execute drug offenders.

What Comes Next?

Ultimately, the UNGASS’ failure to make meaningful changes to existing international drug control conventions means it is likely nations will continue to diverge and experiment with drug policy at the national level, particularly with marijuana and particularly in the Americas.

This is most immediately apparent in the case of Mexico and Peña Nieto using the UNGASS to announce changes to marijuana laws. In this, Mexico is joining a host of countries around the region in liberalizing marijuana laws, not least Uruguay, which is set to soon begin implementing the state regulated legal sale of marijuana for recreational use, becoming the first nation worldwide to do so.

Further to the north, the United States looks set to maintain its role at the forefront of marijuana legalization, albeit despite, not because of the national government. Four US states, including Colorado and Washington, now allow the sale of marijuana for recreational use, while another 24 have legalized medical marijuana. Canada’s health minister, meanwhile, announced during the UNGASS that legislation to legalize marijuana would be introduced in 2017. Canada’s new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on a promise to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana, saying it would fix a “failed system.” 

In addition to marijuana laws, reformist states are also likely to explore further policies with a focus on public health rather than law and order, as has already been seen — with varying levels of success — in countries across the region.

Given the powerful defenders of the status quo and glacial pace of building international consensus, national experiments are likely to represent the future of drug policy reform for the foreseeable future. What remains to be seen is whether prohibitionist international conventions will continue to dominate in the face of this challenge, or whether their global influence will be eroded by localized attempts to change the paradigm.

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