Pubdate: Tue, 19 Apr 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company
Author: Somini Sengupta


UNITED NATIONS - Canada has promised to legalize marijuana. Mexico's 
highest court has allowed some citizens to grow cannabis for personal 
use. Colombia has reversed its decades-long policy of aerial spraying 
against coca, the raw ingredient in cocaine.

Even in the United States, once the chief architect of the global war 
on drugs, four states permit recreational marijuana sales. Other 
states have pro-legalization ballot measures pending. And a heroin 
epidemic has prompted the mayor of at least one city to propose 
establishing a supervised injection clinic.

It is not as if the United Nations snack bar is going to start 
selling pot-laced gummy bears anytime soon. Still, a growing 
worldwide insurgency is confronting the war on drugs, with public 
health workers, the police and lawmakers questioning the wisdom of 
decades-old global conventions meant to eradicate illegal substances 
and punish those who produce and consume them.

That fight will preoccupy the United Nations General Assembly this 
week, as world leaders debate whether punitive international drug 
laws should be eased to reflect the times. It is the first time in 
nearly two decades that countries will debate longstanding drug laws.

That debate comes at a time when countries large and small are 
rethinking their approaches to the drug issue, adopting policies that 
experts say breach current global conventions against drugs by 
legalizing some substances in some places - and lessening punishment 
for offenders in others.

"We are on the cusp of the collapse of the regime," said Vanda 
Felbab-Brown, an analyst at the Brookings Institution.

The conflict pits two equally improbable alliances against each 
other. On one side are the insurgents, led largely by several 
countries in Latin America that have begun to challenge conventional 
antidrug strategies or to legalize some drugs in hopes of blunting 
the violence that the drug wars have wrought. Canada's health 
minister will make his country's pitch to legalize marijuana, along 
with the presidents of Bolivia and Colombia, critics of the existing treaties.

On the other side are the staunch defenders of those conventions.

They are led by Russia and China, and they are joined by smaller 
countries with some of the strictest drug laws, including those that 
impose the death penalty, such as Singapore, Iran and Saudi Arabia. A 
push to prohibit the death penalty in drug cases is expected to be 
one of the most contentious items in the discussions this week.

The United States, once the world's principal drug-law enforcer, is 
in the most awkward spot. It opposes overturning the relevant global 
treaties (there are three, the first dating to 1961). But it has also 
been put on notice for violating those treaties with initiatives that 
legalized recreational cannabis use in four states. That makes it 
hard for American officials to scold other countries for taking a 
less-than-prohibitionist stance against drugs.

William R. Brownfield, the top State Department official in charge of 
combating drug-trafficking, sought to strike a balance when he told 
reporters last month that the United States would, in effect, not 
oppose how other governments choose to deal with drug laws within 
their own borders. American officials have also argued that because 
federal law continues to prohibit recreational use of marijuana, it 
is therefore not afoul of the global drug treaties.

"My view - my government's view - is let's establish some basic 
pillars: Defend the integrity of the conventions, accept the inherent 
discretion within those conventions, tolerance for governments 
exploring their own national policies, and a commitment to combating 
the transnational criminal organizations," Mr. Brownfield said.

For years, international drug laws have been geared toward 
eliminating illegal substances - in 1998, the last time the United 
Nations took up the subject, a declaration stressed that the 
consumption of illicit drugs "must not become accepted as a way of 
life" - and to punish those who produce and use them.

That approach has since come under sharp scrutiny, not just in public 
health and human rights quarters, but, increasingly, from law 
enforcement authorities and politicians who suggest it may have done 
more harm than good.

In the United States, the Obama administration has taken steps toward 
addressing what it considers unduly harsh prison sentences for 
nonviolent drug offenses. Such sentences have also become an issue in 
this year's American presidential race.

The three-day review of drug laws at the United Nations this week is 
expected to yield much less than reformers hope.

The drug treaties are not likely to be abrogated or renegotiated, 
largely because of the influence of countries like Russia (one of 
whose career diplomats runs the United Nations drugs office) and 
Egypt (one of whose envoys will lead this week's General Assembly 
Special Session).

The meeting does, however, highlight how divided the world has become 
over the right approach to drug laws.

Inside the General Assembly hall, countries are expected to endorse a 
document, completed after weeks of negotiations, that reaffirms the 
commitment to "promote a society free of drug abuse," but also 
acknowledges public health concerns and recognizes "alternative or 
additional measures" to punishment. The document makes no mention of 

Bernie Sanders, campaigning for the Democratic presidential 
nomination, was moved to weigh in on the topic. Last week, he was 
among hundreds of people, and one of six senators, who signed an open 
letter to the United Nations secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon. The war 
on drugs had proved "disastrous for global health, security and human 
rights," stated the letter, which expressed support for state and 
national governments around the world that had legalized marijuana.

The letter was endorsed by an unlikely alliance of politicians, 
business leaders and activists, including the billionaire investor 
Warren Buffett, the founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, 
Alicia Garza, Ernesto Zedillo, a former president of Mexico, and the 
musician Sting.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom