Next month, the 193 member states of the United Nations will meet to talk about drugs. The last time this happened, in 1998, the summit ended with a distinctly utopian ambition: the total eradication of all drugs from the entire world. "A drug-free world—we can do it!" the summit declared. Eighteen years later, narcotics are still as popular as ever, with the UN estimating that the global number of illicit drug users will increase 25 percent by 2050.
In the meantime, a handful of countries have experimented with alternative approaches. Portugal famously decriminalized all drugs in 2001, while Switzerland has pioneered the policy of heroin prescription, and Washington and Colorado have legalized the sale of marijuana for recreational purposes. So far, all of those schemes have, by and large, proved successful in minimizing harm and boosting local economies.
At the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS), which starts on April 19, a range of NGOs and campaign groups will be lobbying policy-makers about the merits of the alternatives to prohibition. I spoke to one longtime campaigner, Steve Rolles of British group Transform, which campaigns for fair and just drug policy, about why this summit matters.
VICE: So why does the looming UN summit on drugs matter?
Steve Rolles: The UNGASS was called by Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala. These are countries for which the "war on drugs" isn't just rhetorical—it has carried a terrible human cost, and for them, it was a case of enough is enough. They called the summit with a specific reform agenda: to consider the failings of the drug war and to "conduct deep reflection to analyze all available options, including regulatory or market measures"—which is code for legalization.
It's the first time world leaders have gathered to discuss the drugs issue on this basis, and the first such meeting since countries—including Uruguay, the US, and Canada—started legalizing cannabis. There are countries where people are still being executed for doing what is completely legal in a number of countries now. The consensus around global prohibition and the whole punitive enforcement model is broken; the UNGASS is a critical moment for the world to consider a different way forward, for policy to catch up with reality.
The UN has been pretty keen on the war on drugs in the past. Do you think that's going to present a problem here?
It's hard to speak about the UN as a single entity. The UN drug agencies are very conservative and opposed to any change or move away from the drug war dogma they have overseen for fifty years. They are basically overseeing a war on drugs—with untold thousands of casualties a year—within an organization, the United Nations, that was set up to prevent wars. The human rights abuses, conflict, illness, and death that result from the war on drugs are precisely the problems the UN is supposed to be preventing.
But the UN drug agencies are increasingly isolated even within the UN system. One of the positives from the UNGASS has been the first real involvement of other UN agencies in the drug debate. Reports from the UN human rights agency, UNAIDS, and the UN development program in particular have delivered devastating critiques of the war on drugs. All of them have called for decriminalization. So there is a fight going on even within the UN—it's not just member states where the drug war consensus is broken.
We can all agree that prohibition, by and large, has been a disaster. But what's been the most counter-productive aspect of it?
After fifty years and literally trillions spent on drug enforcement, more people use drugs than ever before, and drugs are cheaper and more available than ever—so it has utterly failed on its own terms. But it has succeeded in fueling a vast, violent illicit trade, creating chaos and misery around the world. The police response has in turn licensed horrific human rights abuses, mass incarceration, and burdened millions with criminal records. It's made drugs more risky, created obstacles to treatment and harm reductions, and fueled the epidemic of HIV and Hep C among people who inject. It's been one of the great social policy disasters of the last century. The Alternative World Drug Report we've just published tells the whole miserable story in gruesome detail.
At the summit, what alternatives will you be pushing?
There are a number of different reform agendas in play. In broad terms, it's about shifting from a punishment and enforcement approach to one based on the three pillars of the UN—peace, human rights, and development—with public health obviously a thread that runs through all three. In terms of specifics, there is a big push to end the criminalization of people who use drugs—something that has almost universal support from the NGOs here, many member states, and all the UN agencies, as well as Ban Ki Moon himself.
There's also a lot of hope for some commitments on upscaling harm reduction to help curtail the HIV epidemic, and that the death penalty for drug offenses can finally be ended. Many are pushing for the global drug controls system to be reformed to allow states who want to legalize cannabis and other drugs to be allowed to—but that's a tougher ask; one that's meeting fierce resistance from the old guard. But as more states are doing it anyway, something has to give soon. It may not be at this meeting, but it has to be soon, or else the system will implode under its own contradictions.
You've been a campaigner on this issue for a long time. How have you seen the anti-drug war movement evolve?
The summit has been a great focus and rallying point for the global movement—networks have expanded and consolidated, and new audiences and interest groups have been brought on board. It's tricky because of the range of issues at play and the cross cutting nature of the issue, but campaigns like stoptheharm.org, Support. Don't Punish, the 10 by 20 campaign, and Anyone's Child—which is expanding to become a global network of families that have been negatively impacted by the drug war—have done a great job in providing a focus for activities. The work has ranged from the high level advocacy through to more public facing activism. It's the first time in twenty years I've ever seen this level of coordination, unity, and focus. Even if the formal UNGASS outcomes aren't all we hope, the movement is stronger than ever moving forward—and it's gaining momentum every day.
Could the summit be the tipping point that ushers in the end of the war on drugs?
Yes, I think it will signal the beginning of the end. It will show once and for all that the global drug war consensus is irreparably broken, and that many parts of the world won't play along any more and are demanding the system is reformed, or they will simply step away from it. We have to be realistic—the global drug war has been with us for fifty years, and it's not going to be unpicked overnight. Reform will be a generational process, but it's clearly already begun, and it's accelerating. The UNGASS will be the tipping point for the high level debate, and one that will help provide the space for many more states to start experimenting with alternatives to the disastrous failings of the war on drugs.