Washington's top international narcotics official gave a qualified go-ahead for countries to decriminalize drugs on Tuesday — the latest sign that the US is walking back decades of hardline rhetoric ahead of a pivotal special session of the United Nations General Assembly on global drug policy in April.
Speaking to reporters at the US Mission to the United Nations in New York, William Brownfield, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, said American officials were attempting to "find areas of pragmatic reform" with other member states over drug policy. A consensus outcome document currently under negotiation at the Committee on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna is expected to be finalized by the middle of next week, he said, and will be presented at the UN special session (UNGASS).
In recent years, Brownfield has increasingly articulated a policy of flexibility in interpreting the three UN drug conventions that have guided domestic laws since the first was agreed upon in 1961. On Tuesday, he reiterated that the conventions allow exceptions in "relation to individual governments' constitutions."
Though advocates have for years pointed out that the conventions can be read as allowing countries space for progressive enforcement of drug laws — or no enforcement at all — such an interpretation is relatively new to Washington. Some advocates have gone so far as to say the entire convention system should be ripped apart, though that would be exceedingly unlikely given opposition from nearly all world powers.
Responding to questions about countries that have decriminalized drug use, like Portugal, Brownfield said that the point of narcotics laws wherever they are should be to staunch the ill-effects of substances, not throw people in jail. Since Portugal passed universal decriminalization legislation in 2001, drug use rates have fallen considerably, including among teenagers, as have drug-induced deaths. Other countries, including Jamaica and Argentina, have since decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
"The issue is not precisely whether a government has chosen to decriminalize or not to decriminalize," Brownfield remarked. "It is whether the government is working cooperatively to reduce the harm of a product."
"A nation can reach its own determination," he added, suggesting that countries should feel free to consider removing penalties for drug use.
Pressed by reporters on what exactly would not be allowed under the US government's "flexible" reading of the convention system, Brownfield demurred. He said it was up to the International Narcotics Control Board, a quasi-judicial body established by the first convention, to determine whether countries were in line with the three treaties. For years, the INCB was heavily criticized by advocates and diplomats alike for its hardline interpretation of the conventions. In 2014, former INCB chief Raymond Yans accused Uruguay of exhibiting a "pirate attitude" after the country allowed a regulated market for marijuana.
More recently, Washington has had to defend itself in front of the INCB after four US states legalized recreational marijuana and began regulating sales. Unlike Bolivia, which withdrew and re-acceded to the convention system with the stipulation that it be allowed a legal market for coca, the US is bound by the entirety of the convention's proscription.
On Tuesday, Brownfield maintained that the US was still in line with the treaties because marijuana remains a Schedule I controlled substance federally.
"Our objective," he claimed, somewhat implausibly, "remains that of limiting and eventually eliminating the use of marijuana in the United States of America."
"Can other governments develop their own national approach?" he asked rhetorically. "They certainly should be allowed to."
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance called Brownfield's remarks "a small step in the right direction."
"I think, in a way, Brownfield is kind of managing the strategic retreat of the US government from many decades of being the principal champion of the drug war," he said.
From the start of the convention system, American experts and diplomats played an outsized role in both drafting the treaties and pushing countries around the world to implement subsequent harsh drug laws. Next month's UNGASS meeting — the General Assembly's first special session on drugs since 1998 — is seen as a crucial indicator of just how much the global consensus has shifted away from an empirically failed war on drugs.
Negotiations underway in Vienna over the UNGASS outcome document are being closely watched by advocates, who say it must differ considerably from what emerged from the 1998 session. That convening of the General Assembly took place under the farcical slogan of "A Drug Free World. We Can Do It!"
VICE News has obtained the most recent version of the text. Notably, the draft says that member states efforts to curtail demand and supply should be "addressed in full conformity with the purposes and principals of the charter of the United Nations, international law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." In the same passage, however, the draft says those efforts should respect "sovereignty and territorial integrity of states," a clause that could potentially be used by repressive states to continue justifying draconian drug laws.
Sources with knowledge of the negotiations in Vienna say the US has not imposed itself strongly on either side of the debate. VICE News also obtained statements read out by member states before the UNGASS board, the body guiding the drafting policy, in February. Russia, which has in the past decade largely assumed the mantle of top drug-warrior on the international scene, used particularly retrograde language.
"We recognize that addiction to narcotics drugs constitutes a serious evil for the individuals and is fraught with social and economic danger to mankind, and we are conscious of our duty to combat this evil," said the Russian statement.
Though it will be presented to all member states in New York in five weeks, the drafting process in Vienna largely precludes states without missions located there from partaking. No Caribbean country, for instance, has a mission in the Austrian capital.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford