Pubdate: Sun, 03 Apr 2016
Source: Observer, The (UK)
Copyright: 2016 Guardian News and Media Limited
Author: Jamie Doward

This Month World Leaders Will Go to the United Nations for a Special 
Assembly to Discuss the War on Drugs. Many Will Argue It Has Failed 
and a New Approach Is Needed.


The year 2008 was momentous. Lehman Brothers collapsed, Radovan Karad 
i was arrested, Russian troops massed on the Georgian border, and 
Barack Obama beat John McCain to the White House.

But 2008 was also significant for something that didn't happen. It 
was the year that the world didn't eliminate the illicit drugs 
problem. This quixotic goal had been set a decade earlier at a United 
Nations general assembly special session when, under the vainglorious 
slogan "We can do it", the supranational body pledged that, by 2008, 
the world would be "drug free".

Now, as the UN prepares to host another special session on drugs in 
New York this month, the failure of the 1998 assembly to realise the 
goal is recorded in the vast amounts of money, resources, time and 
blood that have been expended in pursuing the apparently impossible.

As Ending the War on Drugs , a new book of essays from some of the 
leading critics of drugs laws, spells out in chilling detail, 
pursuing such an ambition has cost taxpayers around the world $100bn 
(UKP70.5bn) a year, roughly the same amount spent on foreign aid.

The main beneficiaries of the laws - framed around the 1961 UN single 
convention on narcotic drugs, which prohibits the production and 
supply of a number of named substances - are criminal organisations, 
which have gained control of a global market with a turnover of more 
than $320bn a year.

Meanwhile, millions of people have been criminalised for non-violent 
drug offences, leading to more than 1.4 million arrests in the US in 
2014 alone. In countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, executions 
for drug trafficking have soared.

The death toll has reached nightmare proportions. In Mexico, 30 
people a day are dying in the battle between cartels and government 
forces. And these are just the obvious deaths. Last month a 
commission set up by the Lancet medical journal and Johns Hopkins 
University declared that the drugs laws had not only failed to curb 
drug use and fuelled violent crime, they had also helped to spread 
HIV and hepatitis C by encouraging unsafe injecting.

By any yardstick, the 1961 convention has been a spectacular failure, 
one that has had devastating consequences for those caught in the 
crosshairs of the war on drugs - a war, critics say, that is of the 
UN's making.

"Given that the UN was set up to maintain security, it seems more 
than an oddity that it is running a war out of its own offices," said 
Danny Kushlick of the pro-reform campaign group Transform.

Even the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) acknowledges its 
failure. Its own analysis notes: "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."

It is unsurprising, then, that the many governments and civil society 
groups pushing for drug law reform are hoping that this year's UN 
special session does not repeat the mistakes of the past.

In 2012, Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala called for the special 
session to be brought forward two years to 2016, citing an urgent and 
pressing need for reform. In an interview with the Observer in 2011, 
Colombia's president, Juan Manuel Santos, called for a comprehensive 
overhaul of drugs laws, highlighting the absurdity of a "one law fits 
all" policy. "I ask myself how you explain marijuana being legalised 
in California [for medicinal purposes] and cocaine consumption being 
penalised in Idaho? It's a contradiction."

It is not just those countries torn apart by the war on drugs that 
feel the contradictions. Numerous UN agencies  notably UN Aids, UN 
Women and UNHCR, the refugee agency - have criticised the promotion 
of prohibition as articulated through the Vienna-based UNODC and the 
UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs. But hopes that this month's session 
will deliver substantive change look forlorn. The draft outcomes 
document circulating before the session even begins by confirming 
that the UN intends to reaffirm its support for prohibition.

This is despite UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon calling for all 
participating countries "to conduct a wide-ranging debate that 
considers all options."

But few believe this has happened. "It is supposed to be an open, 
inclusive process that has considered all the options," said Ann 
Fordham of the International Drug Policy Consortium. "But we feel 
that civil society views have not been adequately reflected in the 

Yet it would be wrong to see the forthcoming special session as an 
irrelevance. Rather it offers a chance to compare how much has 
changed since the last session  if not within the UN, then outside 
it. "The voices of reform are getting stronger," Fordham said. "It's 
a slow burn. They are saying, you guys can stay in your ivory towers 
in Vienna or New York and pretend that the world isn't changing 
around you, but it is."

Daniel Wolfe, director of the international harm reduction 
development programme at the Open Society Foundations, agrees with 
Fordham's analysis. For Wolfe, the established UN consensus no longer 
holds. Too many countries damaged by the war are now challenging the orthodoxy.

"The Latin Americans have done amazing things," Wolfe said. "I think 
there is the sense that Vienna has become a kind of Jurassic Park, 
with the dinosaurs of drug control running around and dictating the 
terms of the discussion, and ignoring the voices of other countries 
and communities that have come a lot farther than they have."

Indeed, in the last decade many former heads of state and eminent 
scientists have tied their colours to the mast of the influential 
Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP)  and come out against 
maintaining the status quo.

What is significant now, though, is that incumbent governments are 
starting to agree. Portugal decriminalised all drugs in 2001, while 
Switzerland has pioneered the policy of heroin prescription; the US 
states of Washington and Colorado have legalised the sale of 
marijuana for recreational purposes. In May 2014, Uruguay unveiled 
reforms to make it the first country in the world to legalise sales 
of marijuana. A year later Canada's newly elected prime minister, 
Justin Trudeau, announced that possession of marijuana for 
recreational use would be legalised.

The same year the Mexican supreme court concluded that national laws 
making it illegal personally to produce, possess and consume 
marijuana violated the rights of Mexicans, paving the way for 
decriminalisation. There has also been an explosion in harm reduction 
initiatives at the subnational level. Drug consumption rooms and 
testing laboratories - allowing users to consume or check their 
narcotics without fear of prosecution - have mushroomed across cities 
in Canada, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Even the US, one of the most ferocious defenders of the status quo, 
appears to accept that the game is up. In 2014, in a little noted 
intervention in the drug control debate, Bill Brownfield, assistant 
secretary of state for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law 
Enforcement Affairs, observed: "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 legalise entire categories of drugs. 
All these countries must work together in the international community."

Further evidence that the US may be subtly shifting its position came 
last week as Barack Obama addressed a drug addiction conference in 
Atlanta. "For too long we've viewed drug addiction through the lens 
of criminal justice," the US president said. "The most important 
thing to do is reduce demand. And the only way to do that is to 
provide treatment - to see it as a public health problem and not a 
criminal problem."

Such an acknowledgement is long overdue in the mind of Professor 
Michel Kazatchkine, the UN special envoy for HIV/Aids in eastern 
Europe and central Asia and a member of the GCDP, who was one of the 
first physicians in Europe to treat people with HIV/Aids.

Kazatchkine attended the 1998 special session and observes that, 
since then, there has been a change in how many states discuss drugs. 
"There has been a shift in language," he said. "There is more 
importance placed on health." But only in certain countries. In 
others, notably Russia and several east African states where drug use 
is subject to zero tolerance by the authorities, drug-related deaths 
from HIV and hepatitis C are escalating.

On some days Kazatchkine is optimistic that the call for reform is 
being heard. "When the sun is shining outside, you could indeed think 
that we are at the beginning of a process of significant change. When 
it's raining you think how is it that with all the evidence we have 
of the failure of drug policies and of the recognition that a world 
free of drugs is an impossible and unnecessary myth, that the world 
is not moving faster? The very notion of a world without drugs is useless."

Some Latin American countries, frustrated by what will be perceived 
as lack of progress at this month's special session, may issue their 
own minority report as a counter to the prohibitionist arguments 
advanced by the UN. This would help to set the agenda for 2019, when 
the UN must set out its next 10-year drugs strategy. By then Canada 
and California will have legalised cannabis markets, which experts 
say will make a mockery of a blanket prohibition policy - but only up 
to a point.

"Will cannabis reform help?" asked Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, 
director of the Open Society Foundations global drug policy 
programme. "Of course, but if it's only cannabis reform then the 
poorest, most vulnerable, most marginalised folk will keep on suffering."

By 2019 the UN will have a new secretary general too. "The fact that 
the outgoing secretary general comes from Asia, a region with the 
most draconian policies, probably didn't work to our advantage," 
Malinowska-Sempruch said. "Whoever comes next will have to take this 
on in a very significant way."

A game-changer would be if the leader of a developed country came out 
firmly against prohibition, something that would turbocharge the 
drive for reform. But this looks unlikely. Even the most candid and 
unabashed of politicians, Donald Trump, who in the 1990s firmly 
supported legalisation, has changed his mind now that he is marching 
on the White House.

Nevertheless, Wolfe believes the world is approaching a tipping 
point. "The most promising reforms will be from outside Geneva or the 
headquarters of the UN. They will come from communities saying we 
can't afford to wait for bureaucratic processes and old thinking to catch up."

Malinowska-Sempruch draws a comparison with the Aids crisis. "There 
were awful times when people were dying and there was no medicine. 
Within a span of 10 years we moved to a situation where retrovirals 
were available. There was a process of outrage and an articulation of 
fairness that focused on the difference between how life is 
considered in the global north and how it is considered in the global 
south and how awful that discrepancy is. That was what got people to move."

The pledge that will be made at this year's special session is for a 
society free of drug abuse by 2019. This is an advance on the 
previous session's promise to make the world drug-free by 2008. A 
semantic tweak perhaps but one that speaks volumes, 
Malinowska-Sempruch believes. "It's a subtle shift, but I think it's 
a significant one."


The key players and what is on the agenda

The United Nations general assembly special session (UN gass) on 
drugs was due to be held in 2018 - two decades on from the last 
session. But it has been brought forward following calls in 2012 from 
Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala for urgent reform of global drug 
control policy. These are three countries that have felt at close 
hand the consequences of the war on drugs and have been vociferous in 
calling on the world to move beyond blanket prohibition.

Despite pleas for reform, the UN has been resolute in its support for 
the status quo, ignoring the seismic social, cultural and juridical 
shifts that have taken place since the last session - and the fact 
that prohibition has been exposed as a failure.

In its submission to the special session, Colombia quotes Albert 
Einstein's aphorism that the definition of insanity is "doing the 
same thing over and over again and expecting a different result". And 
yet this is the approach favoured by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime 
and its Commission on Narcotic Drugs, which have been unbending in 
their defence of the policy.

Sir Richard Branson, a Global Commission on Drugs Policy 
commissioner, argues that the true importance of a special session 
lies in affording countries and civil society groups a chance to make 
their voices heard. This, in turn, will create momentum.

"The key now is to understand the long-term trajectory. UN gass is a 
milestone, but it isn't the last opportunity for change. What also 
matters about UN gass are signals and gestures. So let's make this 
session a strong show of dissent. That may actually be more impactful 
than the outcome document itself."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom