Pubdate: Sun, 31 Jan 2016
Source: Observer, The (UK)
Copyright: 2016 Guardian News and Media Limited
Authors: Nick Clegg and Bohuslav Sobotka


Nick Clegg and Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka Set Out Their 
Vision Before a Forthcoming UN Summit

Standing on the podium at the United Nations in New York in June 
1998, Kofi Annan declared: "It is time for all nations to say 'yes' 
to the challenge of working towards a drug-free world!" The leaders 
assembled at that meeting agreed: illegal drugs were to be eradicated 
from the face of the planet. They even set a deadline: 10 years to 
rid the globe of this scourge. A drug-free world by 2008.

We all know that drug use can cause great damage to individuals, 
their families and communities. We want to get to grips with these 
problems. But with hindsight, the naivety displayed by world leaders 
in 1998 and at many previous and subsequent meetings is breathtaking. 
There is something profoundly misguided about the idea that human 
beings, who for thousands of years have taken an array of chemicals 
and plants for recreational and ritual purposes, would, in the space 
of 10 years, suddenly sober up at the request of the UN.

Far from shrinking, the global trade in illicit drugs has ballooned 
into a $330bn business with an estimated 270m "customers" and a 
foothold in every corner of the world, from the jungles of Latin 
America to the streets of European villages. In the face of so much 
suffering, we have no choice but to be honest and to call for an 
evidencebased and open-minded debate. The "war on drugs" has failed.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime paints a stark picture: "The illicit 
drug business is worth billions of dollars a year, part of which is 
used to corrupt government officials and to poison economies. Drug 
cartels are spreading violence in Central America, Mexico and the 
Caribbean. West Africa is under attack from narco-trafficking. 
Collusion between insurgents and criminal groups threatens the 
stability of west Asia, the Andes and parts of Africa, fuelling the 
trade in smuggled weapons, the plunder of natural resources and piracy."

Much of the heroin, cocaine and cannabis produced in or passing 
through these countries is bound for our own shores. While we haven't 
suffered to anything like the degree that producer and transit 
countries have, millions of European citizens' lives are affected by 
drugs and by public policy responses to drugs. In fact, the "war" 
very often seems to have been visited on the weakest members of our societies.

This is the desperate context to the decision, in 2012, by a group of 
heads of state from Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala, to call on the UN 
general assembly to convene a special session in April 2016 to look 
for options. That request was granted and governments across the 
world are gearing up for the meeting, which takes place in New York in April.

Those who aren't familiar with the UN may be surprised to learn how 
much influence it has over the global system of drug control. There 
are three international drugs treaties, signed in 1961, 1971 and 
1988. They commit the signatories to prohibit the use of recreational 
drugs and also regulate the supply of some of those drugs as 
medicines. These treaties are overseen by a set of UN institutions, 
based in Vienna. If we want a better system, one that truly works to 
protect human health and welfare, then the UN is the right place for 
that debate.

Some countries have decided to take bold unilateral steps. In the US, 
a number of states have voted to establish regulated recreational 
cannabis markets and the federal government has started to take steps 
to reduce the prison population. Uruguay has become the first nation 
state to do so and the new Canadian government has said it will 
follow suit. The Czech Republic and Portugal have decriminalised 
possession of small amounts of drugs so the state can focus resources 
on prevention and treatment rather than overcrowded prisons. 
Switzerland has pioneered supervised heroin-injecting clinics, a 
model Denmark, France and Ireland are following. The UK has led the 
way on harm-reduction measures such as needle exchange and methadone treatment.

In spite of these developments, the blunt truth is that Europe isn't 
pulling its weight on the international stage. Preparations for the 
April summit are trundling along in the diplomatic undergrowth. It's 
time for politicians to step in, joining forces with the presidents 
of Mexico and Colombia to push for an ambitious deal in New York.

What does a good deal look like? The best scenario is one in which 
the agreement published at the end of the summit eschews talk of the 
total eradication of drugs or punishing users and instead calls for 
measures that promote public health, human rights, harm reduction and 
support and treatment for people who use drugs, while creating space 
for countries seeking alternative approaches to really explore them.

Above all, governments need to base their policies on the best 
available evidence, rather than political posturing. A good example 
is the Czech Republic, where a new law was passed in 1998 
criminalising the possession of small amounts of drugs. The then 
government set up mechanisms to evaluate the impact of the change and 
concluded that the more prohibitionist approach wasn't working. A new 
law was introduced in 2010. While drugs remain illegal, most people 
caught in possession of drugs for their own use receive an 
administrative fine rather than a criminal record.

In 2014, the UK coalition government conducted a major review of the 
international evidence from other countries with different 
approaches, both harsher and more liberal. The evidence supports an 
approach that decriminalises the user, but retains criminal penalties 
for those who profit from the drug market.

Six weeks ago, we saw what diplomacy can do at the Paris climate 
talks. The UN general assembly special session on drug policy may be 
the summit that no one has heard of, but the opportunity to mend the 
mistakes of the past and change the direction of the future puts it 
in the same category of importance. Kofi Annan strikes a very 
different tone than he did 18 years ago. Witnessing the effects of 
drug markets and misguided policies on his own region of West Africa, 
he recently observed: "Drugs may have destroyed many people, but 
wrong governmental policies have destroyed many more. Let us not 
repeat this mistake."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom