The United Nations General Assembly special session on drugs held this week was historic, as the last one to take place was in 1998 and its mission was, ironically, the exact opposite of this one. The slogan for the 1998 session was, “A drug-free world – we can do it!” This one was supposed to be different.
However, the bureaucratic assembly dashed hopes of setting a course to move away from the failures and injustice of the War on Drugs. In defiance of science, reason, and more than a thousand world leaders calling for an end to the drug war, the United Nations continued supporting prohibitionist policies.
“The agreement adopted on the first day of the three-day summit included no criticism of the death penalty for drug crimes, and instead called for greater cooperation between nations, while maintaining the prohibitionist framework which criminalizes all drug use that is not for medical or scientific purposes.
The agreement – called an “outcome document” – was not a surprise for anyone in the room and was publicised in advance of the meeting and adopted almost immediately.”
This special session on drugs — the first since 1998 — was hailed as an opportunity to recognize the utter failure of the drug war and promote more humane solutions to the problem of abuse.
Just before the session, more than 1,000 world leaders, celebrities and law enforcement figures urged the UN body to adopt “real reform of global drug control policy.” They stated in a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon:
“The drug control regime that emerged during the last century has proven disastrous for global health, security and human rights. Focused overwhelmingly on criminalization and punishment, it created a vast illicit market that has enriched criminal organizations, corrupted governments, triggered explosive violence, distorted economic markets and undermined basic moral values.”
Several members of the General Assembly spoke to this effect, including Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto.
“So far, the solutions [to control drugs and crime] implemented by the international community have been frankly insufficient,” Peña Nieto told the general assembly. “We must move beyond prohibition to effective prevention.”
Mexico, one of three countries that lobbied for the special session, has experienced tens of thousands of homicides as a direct result of the black market and drug cartels. This is only one of the consequences of the ludicrous idea that drugs should be eradicated and drug use outlawed.
Prohibition creates black markets which fuel death and destruction, corruption among politicians, and dangerous substances from unscrupulous makers. Prohibition has been a driving force in the problem of mass incarceration, especially in the U.S. which quadrupled its jail population to 2.3 million since the drug war ramped up in 1980.
Further underscoring the absurdity of the UN’s continued prohibition stance is the fact that its own office recognizes the harms brought by the drug war. An analysis from the UN Office of Drugs and Crime states:
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“Global drug control efforts have had a dramatic unintended consequence: a criminal black market of staggering proportions. Organised crime is a threat to security. Criminal organisations have the power to destabilise society and governments. The illicit drug business is worth billions of dollars a year, part of which is used to corrupt government officials and to poison economies.”
Prohibition has done absolutely nothing to reduce the amount of drugs or the number of people using them. It can be argued that the drug war has actually increased drug use and deadly addiction.
The UN General Assembly also turned a blind eye to the words of its former Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, who penned an essay in February stating that the war on drugs is a “war on people.” Annan went on to say:
“I believe that drugs have destroyed many lives, but wrong government policies have destroyed many more. We all want to protect our families from the potential harm of drugs. But if our children do develop a drug problem, surely we will want them cared for as patients in need of treatment and not branded as criminals.”
This kind of cognizance was in short supply at the special session. Countries such as China and Iran, where the death penalty for drug crimes is common, insisted the UN should remain silent on the issue. Indonesia’s delegate said the death penalty was an “important component” of drug control, and was booed by attendees.
Contrast this with enlightened countries such as Norway, which called for a “human rights” approach and was applauded.
Strangely enough, the U.S. was a moderate presence at the special session on drugs. Even though federal law is still mired in prohibition, two states have fully legalized cannabis use and commercial sales, with more and more states decriminalizing the plant as time goes on. Congress defunded the ability of the Department of Justice to go after state-approved medical cannabis sales.
The head of the International Narcotics Control Board — a relic of the original 1961 convention on drugs which laid the groundwork for prohibition — whined about the U.S. situation. “The non-medical use of substances, in particular cannabis, are in clear contravention of the conventions,” said president Werner Sipp. “They defy the international conventions.”
This indefensible attitude somehow prevailed at the special session, despite a host of former world leaders and advocacy groups calling for an end to prohibition and its proven harms.
Former Colombian president César Gaviria Trujillo said the UN’s goal of a “society free of drug abuse” is "unrealistic, totally naive, almost stupid.”
Fortunately, we are not yet living in a time of “world government” where a body like the UN has authority over all countries. In spite of the UN’s reaffirmation of prohibition, countries are moving away from the failed concept.
Portugal decriminalized all drugs in 2001, and subsequently saw a drop in drug abuse and crime. Uruguay is set to become the first country in the world to allow cannabis sales, and Canada may soon follow. The U.S. may soon downgrade cannabis from a Schedule 1 narcotic to Schedule 2, which would be a small step but still heartening.