“A Drug Free World — We can do it!” declared the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem in 1998, the last time the U.N. addressed global drug policy. Among the goals set out at the session was the reduction, if not outright eradication, of illegal cocaine, opium and cannabis production by 2008.
Now, with a new U.N. special session on drug policy scheduled to take place next month in New York, creating a drug-free world is no longer a realistic part of the agenda.
Instead, world leaders and activists around the globe are calling for the U.N. to use the session to move the global war on drugs away from criminalization and prohibition and toward criminal justice reform, public health efforts and human rights initiatives.
Last month, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who headed the world organization in 1998, declared: “We need to accept that a drug-free world is an illusion,” saying it was time to legalize and regulate personal drug use. Earlier this week, one of the United States’ top drug officials, William Brownfield, assistant secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, signaled that the Obama administration accepted other countries’ decriminalization efforts. As he told reporters at UNGASS 2016, “We will call for pragmatic and concrete criminal justice reform, areas such as alternatives to incarceration or drug courts, or sentencing reform.”
Many nonprofits would like the administration to go further. On Thursday, more than 225 nongovernmental organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and AIDS United, sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging a bold push at the U.N. that could lead to reforming the international drug conventions that have long shaped narcotics laws around the world.
It’s no coincidence that Annan, Brownfield and the letter from the NGOs all reference the fact that four U.S. states and the District of Columbia have legalized adult marijuana use. That’s because cannabis legalization efforts risk leaving the United States in violation of the tough international drug policies it has championed for decades, while demonstrating that the social impact of such violations is far from catastrophic. In other words, U.S. marijuana legalization at the state level, pushed by referendums, might have an unintended consequence: It could force the United States’ hand in leading a seismic shift in global drug policy.
Since 1961, the global war on drugs has been defined by the U.N.’s Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which focused on the duty to “prevent and combat” the evil of drug addiction. That convention and two subsequent amendments required the 154 nations that ratified it to enact “adequate punishment” for the unauthorized cultivation, production or possession of cannabis, opium, coca derivatives and other narcotics. As a whole, these U.N. drug conventions have discouraged countries from exploring alternative approaches to drug policy, since any attempt to legalize a particular drug would be seen as a treaty violation.
But over the past few decades, a growing number of countries have pushed back against the U.N. drug conventions’ prohibition-based tactics, despite the continuing hardline stances of great powers nations such as China, Russia and the United States. Inspired in part by the extreme violence of the drug war in Mexico — where an estimated 164,000 people were murdered between 2007 and 2014 — various Latin American countries have decriminalized possession of minor drugs. And at a 2005 meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the U.N.’s central decision-making body on drug policy, the European Union began advocating for harm-reduction strategies such as needle-exchange programs, with many other countries endorsing the move.
Calls for a new approach to global drug problems have increased in recent years, fueled in part by proliferating experiments with legalized marijuana in the United States. In 2012, Colorado and Washington state voted to allow adult cannabis use; two years later, in August 2014, Uruguay legalized a state-controlled marijuana market as a way to address crime and health issues. Later that year, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., legalized cannabis, and in 2015 new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signaled he would launch a legal marijuana system nationwide, while in Mexico the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of personal cannabis use.