When the United Nations General Assembly last held a special session on global narcotics policy in 1998, the war on drugs was in full swing. That year, US officials came up with the outlines of their "Plan Colombia" support package for the South American nation. Indicative of Washington's approach to drugs in the late 1990s, it focused heavily on laying waste to coca crops , and gave little thought to those affected by destructive aerial spraying.
At the time, the world's most powerful countries were united in pushing to reduce the supply of illicit drugs, and attention was rarely paid to wealthy countries, like the US, that feed demand for cocaine and other narcotics. That year, world leaders in New York were convinced that drugs would go away with the right mixture of repression and prohibition, so much so that they convened under the slogan "A Drug Free World — We Can Do It!"
In many ways, the global conversation about drugs has been turned on its head since then. The UN and many top world powers now actively endorse harm reduction measures, like opioid substitution therapy and needle exchange programs. According to one recent assessment, 25 countries have passed some form of decriminalization for drug possession, and one, Uruguay, has created a legal market for cannabis. Four US states have done the same.
In 2012, three Latin American countries, Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia, having seen the deadly toll of the drug war, called for a new meeting of the General Assembly. That special session on drugs, known as UNGASS, begins tomorrow.
The centerpiece of this year's UNGASS will be the adoption of an outcome document meant to reposition drug policy. Drafted last month at the UN's Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, the resolution includes several important progressive elements. Notably, it elevates the role of human rights in response to drug addiction, and incorporates guidelines set forth by the World Health Organization for HIV treatment and care for injecting drug users. Those guidelines prominently feature substitution therapy and needle exchange programs.
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But advocates say the document could have been much stronger. Conservative countries, led by Russia, prevented the actual words "harm reduction," from being included in the text. Member states like Iran and China, which execute drug offenders, stopped language on the death penalty from being referenced. And throughout the resolution are carefully-worded carve-outs for "national legislation," essentially giving countries the right to pursue policies as hardline as they would like.
Convening diplomats at the UN to rehash drug policy is vital, both from a messaging standpoint and in terms of how countries will now interpret the three UN conventions that have informed national laws for the past half century. Since the first was passed in 1961, powerful governments, including the US, have traditionally pushed hardline readings of the treaties. But in recent years, as more countries spoke up against the war on drugs, experts and diplomats have returned to the texts, reanalyzing what they allow. Though the conventions categorize a range of substances, including cannabis, opium and coca as illicit, they do not, as was often assumed, require countries to imprison low-level offenders on a wide scale — a trend that remains perhaps the single most disastrous result of prohibition.
In recent years, the US has conducted its own delicate reassessment, and its top international drug officials now stress the "flexibility" of the conventions. While some critics have called for a dismantling of the entire convention system, US officials now claim only a new pair of glasses is needed, and that the treaties grant latitude for a wider range of national and local models. Other countries have taken their relationship to the UN a step further. Bolivia for instance, withdrew from the convention system, before re-acceding, with support from the General Assembly, along with a stipulation that they be allowed to maintain a legal domestic coca market. In the years since, coca production has actually fallen in Bolivia, while Peru and Colombia have vied for the title of world's top cocaine producer.
Internationally, Washington has little choice but to now preach the convention's flexibility: with four states already running legalized cannabis markets, and 20 others considering some form of legalization in 2016, the US finds itself in the awkward position of defending itself in front of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), a quasi-judicial oversight body established by the conventions.
The INCB, long a punching bag for reformers who criticized its hardline against countries like Uruguay — the former chief of the INCB accused it of being a "pirate country" after it legalized cannabis — has itself evolved. Its most recent annual report highlighted the need for human rights to be mainstreamed in the drug response. In March, the INCB released a special report focused on the lack of access to pain medication in most parts of the developing world. Millions die every year, of painful diseases like cancer, without ever taking a medicine stronger than over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen and acetaminophen.
But for all the reflection that has taken place in the past two decades, a huge number of UN member states appear unlikely to budge. In Southeast Asia, countries still publicly aim to have completely drug free societies. Middle Eastern countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan routinely execute drug offenders. In Russia, draconian enforcement and a lack of harm reduction measures has led to an explosion of HIV and other communicable diseases. And in the US, despite promised reforms, nearly half of all prisoners are still jailed for drug offenses. When many of those offenders are freed, state laws that disenfranchise felons ensure they are unable to vote for the politicians who will decide future drug laws.
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At the UN, it remains unclear just how seriously most member states consider drug policy reform. Last week, the office of the President of the General Assembly reported that only a "half dozen" heads of state would attend UNGASS. One of those who was not to appear was Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. After a domestic outcry — many pointed out it was Mexico that actually called for UNGASS — Peña Nieto reversed course and said he would fly to New York.
The past 18 years have shown that the evolution of drug policy begins in national and state "laboratories," like Portugal, which decriminalized drugs in 2001, and Colorado and Washington, the first US states to create regulated cannabis markets. Already, Canada has announced it will join Uruguay in legalizing cannabis, and similar discussions are happening throughout the Americas.
Though the UN is charged with enforcing the global conventions, dialogue between member states is often tepid and generalized, and their decisions tempered by the consensus-based process on resolutions. But UNGASS, if nothing else, could offer governments on the fence an added nudge as they look to change their drug laws.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford