US Signals Shift in International Drug Policy

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In a press conference that received little media attention, 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. 

In a meeting with reporters at the United Nations in New York on October 9, Brownfield set out the United States’ position on international drug policy, including to “accept flexible interpretation” of the UN Drug Control conventions, which were first drafted in the 1960s. He stated that:

Things have changed since 1961. We must have enough flexibility to allow us to incorporate those changes into our policies … to tolerate different national drug policies, to accept the fact that some countries will have very strict drug approaches; other countries will legalize entire categories of drugs.

Brownfield argued that, no matter their approach to drug regulation, all countries should “agree to combat and resist the criminal organizations — not those who buy, consume, but those who market and traffic the product for economic gain.”

Brownfield noted that changing legislation within the United States has affected the country’s attitude to alternative drug policies in other countries. “How could I, a representative of the government of the United States of America, be intolerant of a government that permits any experimentation with legalization of marijuana if two of the 50 states of the United States of America have chosen to walk down that road?” Brownfield said.

Brownfield also revealed that he has agreed to exchange evaluations of marijuana legalization policies with government officials in Uruguay, in order to measure their impact on violence and organized crime.

The press conference was a follow-up to a speech Brownfield gave earlier that day to the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly.

InSight Crime Analysis

Brownfield’s remarks advocating a more flexible approach to international drug policy are a milestone for the drug policy reform movement. They are another indication that the United States is beginning to look at illicit drugs as a public health problem and not just a criminal justice issue. In the 2014 White House National Drug Control Strategy Report (pdf), President Barack Obama noted that reforms to the criminal justice system had addressed sentencing disparities for drug crimes and offered alternatives to prison for nonviolent substance abusers.

 SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy

Brownfield’s statements come as the United States is facing increasing pressure to rethink drug policy, with regional allies such as Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico all moving towards liberalized policies.

The more liberal position from the United States may also reflect changing drug consumption patterns at home. Brownfield stated that US cocaine consumption is nearly half of what it was 10 years ago, while abuse of prescription medications is now the country’s greatest drug threat, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). This means that Washington may increasingly need to look inwards, rather than to Latin America, to fight its war on drugs.

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