Entering a new era of international drug policy

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UNGASS on drugs, held in New York City from April 19-21, is reforming international drug policy as governments around the world voice displeasure with the long-standing war on drugs.
Sarah Haas

NEW YORK — The United Nations General Assembly Special Session on drugs (UNGASS) convenes this week to debate and accept a resolution reforming the approach to the world drug problem. Since the 1970s, international drug policy has taken a prohibitionist stance that creates the so-called war on drugs, targeting supply, demand and criminal activity, and seeking punitive treatment of offenders.

The war on drugs has proven to be ineffective and costly. And in 2014, Guatemala joined other Latin and South American countries which then gained sufficient support from still others in order to call for this special session. 

The U.S. is among the 193 member states that agreed to past prohibitionist policies and subsequently designed many of its federal laws to uphold its obligations to UN resolutions. As state-led initiatives steer away from total prohibition and toward decriminalization and legalization, international policies are also pivoting toward more human-centered approaches.

Evidence is mounting that prohibitionist policies are not only economically inefficient, but also threaten international security and human rights. Despite aggressive global policing, the illegal drug market has continued to thrive, making it apparent to global leaders that the cost of fighting the drug war has overshadowed its benefit.

The irony of the UN, a peacekeeping organization, endorsing the war on drugs was heightened as a handful of states began decriminalizing or legalizing drug use.

In a Guardian op-ed published in advance of UNGASS, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos asked: “How does one explain to a Colombian peasant in a rural community in the Southwest of the country that he will be prosecuted under criminal charges for growing marijuana plants, while a young entrepreneur in Colorado finds his or her legal recreational marijuana business booming?”

These emerging tensions have positioned this UNGASS special session to be a ground-breaking, open debate about the international drug control system. And that represents a major shift in the international approach to drug control.

The last time the UN met to discuss drug policy in 2009, the underlying assumption was that drugs are inherently dangerous and harmful and that those complicit in both supply and demand ought to be treated as threats to international security.

The morning of Tuesday, April 19, a draft resolution was unanimously accepted at UNGASS 2016 that embraces a new understanding of the “drug problem.” The resolution refocuses the drug problem as a global health crisis, placing humans and human rights at the center of the conversation. 

Part of this effort is to better understand illicit substances by making them more readily available to medical and scientific organizations for research of their effects, both harmful and helpful.

The World Health Organization reports that 80 percent of the global population lacks sufficient access to pain relieving medicines, a human rights crisis in its own right, and calls for proper research of substances, like cannabis, that can solve this shortage regardless of its illegal classification.

As member states made their opening statements regarding the draft resolution, tensions emerged.

On the pro-drug end of the spectrum is Jamaica, arguing that there is insufficient flexibility in the resolution to allow the right to personal consumption of drugs, specifically cannabis, which is a matter of religious and cultural significance for the island nation.

Many countries, including those in the European Union, Switzerland, Mexico, Uruguay and others, say that the draft does not go far enough toward reducing criminalization, arguing it omits a necessary moratorium on the death penalty for drug offenses as well as the endorsement of harm reduction tactics.

On the more conservative side are countries like China and Indonesia, both of which made statements on Tuesday. China called for the need for international solidarity in the classification of controlled substances as illicit, calling into question the legalization of marijuana in states like Colorado. Both countries are joined by several others in claiming their sovereign right to institute justice systems that include the death penalty. 

UNGASS is a critical reassessment of prohibition that seeks to recognize and explore the spectrum of possibilities between legalization and criminalization. As the conversation continues into the coming days, the collective call for a resolution that will serve as a point of departure for member states — allowing them to effectively implement a new era of human centered drug policy — grows louder.

Sarah Haas is in New York covering the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs.