Did 2015 Mark the Start of the End for the War on Drugs?

Drug restriction has mostly failed to address the real problems of addiction and crime. 2015 was the year governments around the world started to act accordingly

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29 December 2015, 11:20pm

A haul of drugs seized by the US Navy. Photo by WikiCommons

Illicit drugs haven't always been illegal. In fact, until the Geneva Convention was signed in 1925 drugs like opium, coca and cannabis were traded pretty freely.

At the time, and in the decades that followed, drug policy was largely driven by fear. Growing concern over the trade in opium was central to the Geneva Convention, which imposed global restrictions on the production and use of opium, coca and, as a late addition, cannabis.

More treaties followed: The 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the 1971 Psychotropics Convention, designed to control drugs such as amphetamines, psychedelics and benzodiazepines. The 1988 Trafficking Convention focused on fighting international drug smuggling and penalising domestic drug possession.

The US-led war on drugs accompanied these additional treaties. In June 1971, US president Richard Nixon heralded in this intensification of drug law enforcement, which has involved mass incarceration domestically and military interventions overseas. To cut a long and complex story short, the 20th century was very anti-drugs.

But over the past century the stoic creep of drug restriction has failed to improve the problems it sought to address. And while 2015 was the year governments around the world started to act accordingly, the moment that may have spelled the end of the drug war happened a few years back.

On June 2, 2011, the Global Commission on Drug Policy released a report declaring "the global war on drugs has failed." The report outlined that "criminalization and repressive measures" have actually resulted in an increase in drug consumption and caused "the growth of a 'huge criminal black market.'"

The organisation called on governments to experiment with "models of legal regulation of drugs" to curb organised crime and improve the health of citizens.

Incidentally, it's in the United States—home of the war on drugs—where some of the most significant reforms have already been made.

On November 8, 2012, both Colorado and Washington voted to legalise the recreational use of marijuana. In November last year, Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia followed suit.

Which brings us to this year. From calls for decriminalisation at the UN to weed as a human right in Mexico—VICE takes a look at the major events of 2015 that spelled the end of the war of drugs.

Jamaica Decriminalises Marijuana

For many, Jamaica is the spiritual home of weed. So when the government passed legislation to decriminalise small amounts of the herb on February 24 this year, it seemed a return to the natural order of things.

The act, which allows for the cultivation of up to five plants on any premises, also establishes a licensing body to regulate a medicinal cannabis industry.

This move follows cannabis reforms in other countries. Uruguay became the first country to completely legalise marijuana on December 10, 2013. Meanwhile in January this year Switzerland—where pot has be decriminalised since October 1, 2013announced weed may soon be made legal.

A UN Document Calling For Decriminalisation Leaks

Traditionally, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has been focused on drug law enforcement. So it came as a surprise to many when a UNODC document was leaked earlier this year, calling for the decriminalisation of personal drug use and possession.

These measures, the document argued, would be consistent with international conventions "and may be required to meet obligations under international human rights law."

When the embargoed paper was leaked by a journalist, it was immediately revoked under pressure from the US government.

Pro-weed Trudeau Wins Canadian Election

On October 19, Justin Trudeau, won the Canadian election on a campaign platform that included the legalisation of recreational cannabis as a key issue.

The official position of Trudeau's Liberal Party is that an established regulated and taxed marijuana market will restrict use by children and prevent organised crime distribution. Last month, Trudeau instructed Canada's justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to draft a legislation plan.

Ireland's Drugs Minister Says Decriminalisation Could Become a Reality

Ireland made world headlines this year by legalising same-sex marriage Then the nation's minister in charge of the National Drug Strategy, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, said the decriminalisation of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use could be on the cards.

This proposed "radical cultural shift" would help remove the issue of drug addiction from the criminal justice system.

On November 2, Ó Ríordáin broached the subject in a speech, while announcing drug users would have access to a supervised injecting room in Dublin as of next year. After that first facility opens, clinics are set to be rolled out in major cities across the nation.

Mexican Supreme Court Declares Smoking Pot a Basic Human Right

The Supreme Court of Mexico ruled on November 4 that a federal ban on the cultivation and use of recreational weed was a violation of citizens' constitutional rights. The panel of judges voted four to one in favour of a nonprofit marijuana club, which had argued the restriction impinged on an individual's right to freely develop one's personality.

Mexican health authorities issued the first permit on December 11, which allows four members of the marijuana club to grow and consume their own cannabis. While the licence only legalises use for these individuals, the decision effectively opens the door to nationwide legalisation.

US Drug Czar Declares Drug War a Failure

To cap off the year, Michael Botticelli, director of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, appeared on 60 Minutes on December 13.

Botticelli delivered a sober appraisal of the way the war on drugs has been waged for the past 40 years, announcing it "has all been wrong."

Botticelli referred to the "failed policies and failed practices" of the campaign and called for a shift away from imprisonment. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that in 2014, 50 percent of federal prisoners in the US were convicted drug offenders. "We can't arrest and incarcerate addiction out of people," Botticelli said.

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