Pubdate: Tue, 19 Apr 2016
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2016 Los Angeles Times
Author: Ann M. Simmons


A U. N. Special Session Will Examine the Effects of the Hard- Line 
Approach and Will Study Alternatives.

At what is being billed as the most significant high-level gathering 
on global drug policy in two decades, the stage will be set for world 
leaders to discuss what would have once been unthinkable - reversing 
course in the war on drugs.

The United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug 
Problem, which begins Tuesday in New York, will bring together 
government, human rights and health leaders to discuss whether the 
hard-line tactics of combating drug trafficking and money laundering 
have failed.

It will also provide a forum for reformists and government leaders 
who are pushing for turning the current drug policy on its head by 
halting drug-related incarcerations, treating drug abuse as a health 
issue rather than a crime and even legalizing drugs.

"The drug control regime that emerged during the last century has 
proven disastrous for global health, security and human rights," 
reads a statement to U. N. Secretary General Ban Kimoon that was 
signed last week by more than 1,000 world leaders, activists and 
celebrities. The letter urges a complete rethinking of the 
conventional war on drugs.

In the United States, federal authorities remain opposed to the 
legalization of drugs, although some states allow the sale and use of 

In Canada, government leaders are calling for greater flexibility to 
control cannabis, by relaxing criminal sanctions and possibly 
legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana. Mexico is already 
debating a bill to legalize pot and changes in its drug laws.

In Colombia, where drug wars have claimed thousands of lives and 
criminal bands compete to control the lucrative exports, officials 
have long complained that the current global policy puts the nation 
in a difficult position - obligated to crack down on the production 
of heroin, cocaine and marijuana, yet faced with the economic 
realities of rural areas where poor farmers have few options but to 
join the drug trade.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has complained that the laws 
put too much onus on producing countries to destroy supply and not 
enough on consuming nations to block demand.

"What Colombians want is that the U. N. become cognizant of its other 
mandates, not just to control drugs but promote the well-being of the 
population, foment human development and protect human life," said 
Bruce Bagley, a drug-trafficking expert and international relations 
professor at the University of Miami who is participating in the U. 
N. special session this week.

Colombia is expected to ask the U. N. to liberalize its rules 
regarding drug use and help with economic alternatives to growing 
coca, poppies and marijuana. The country also might consider 
legalizing "dispensaries" where heroin addicts can take the narcotic 
under relatively hygienic conditions.

But not all nations favor relaxation of global drug control. Russia 
and China, for example, support more forceful drug suppression 
policies, while in Saudi Arabia and Singapore offenders can still 
face the death penalty for smoking pot.

"We want a drug-free society, not a drug-tolerant one," Desmond Lee, 
a senior minister of state in Singapore's Home Affairs and National 
Development ministries said at a preparatory session.

Drug reform advocates are not convinced that the policy as it stands 
serves the best interest of the world's citizens.

Those who signed the letter to the U. N. secretary-general, including 
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, charge that the 
system focuses so heavily on criminalization and punishment that it 
has "created a vast illicit market that has enriched criminal 
organizations, corrupted governments, triggered explosive violence, 
distorted economic markets and undermined basic moral values."

Governments, they argue, have "devoted disproportionate resources to 
repression at the expense of efforts to better the human condition."

In the U. S., for example, poor people and racial and ethnic 
minorities have faced mass incarceration for mostly low-level and 
nonviolent drug law violations. Problem drug use has spread along 
with infectious diseases, such as HIV/ AIDS and hepatitis, while 
access to harm reduction and other treatment options have been 
hampered because of outdated attitudes about such programs, activists 
say There's ."been this obsession with eradicating drug use 
altogether but that's unlikely to ever actually happen" said Diederik 
Lohman, an associate director with the health and human rights 
division of Human Rights Watch. "We should be trying to minimize the 
use of drugs to protect public health."

Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton has faced 
criticism over her husband's "three strikes" crime bill that 
authorized life sentences for criminals convicted of a violent felony 
after two or more prior convictions, including drug crimes. The 
policy is widely believed to have contributed to prison overcrowding 
and the disproportionate jailing of minorities.

In other countries, the global drug policy has served as an excuse 
for unjust punishment and execution. Destruction of drug crops has 
also caused environmental harm and deepened poverty in some nations 
where farmers depend on the yields to survive. And despite the 
billions of dollars spent on pursuing, killing, prosecuting, 
extraditing and imprisoning kingpins, dealers and people who use 
drugs, illicit drugs are less expensive and more accessible today 
than ever before, according to Human Rights Watch.

Simply put, Lohman and others argue, "the so-called war on drugs has 
been lost."

Special correspondent Chris Kraul in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to 
this report.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom