The Most Important UN Drug Summit in Decades Was Really Depressing

This month's meeting of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime was supposed to be an important event in the war on drugs, but instead it was yet another gathering of prohibitionists trotting out the same old platitudes

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Mar 21 2014, 1:30pm

The UN building in Vienna (Photo courtesy of Legal Matters magazine)

This month, amid a backdrop of governments—in a number of American states, as well as the countries of Portugal and Uruguay—coming around to the idea of legalizing at least some drugs, I arrived at the United Nation's office in Vienna to check out one of the most crucial meetings on global drug policy in decades.

At this high-level conference, 1,300 delegates from 127 member states, NGOs, and agencies were on hand to assess the progress made toward the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) big goal of significantly reducing or outright eradicating the use and production of illegal drugs by 2019. By the end, they were going to have a consensus statement about what the entire world should do in regard to drugs, which sounds like a pretty big deal.

The security in Vienna is airport-strict. I asked why, and the security guy told me that royalty of some sort was paying a visit and that sometimes people threaten to blow up the UN. But he also said that, by entering this UN complex, I'm officially leaving Austria and entering into an "extraterritorial" zone. Like an embassy or military base, it's exempt from the jurisdiction of local law. As I discovered later, being in an extraterritorial zone is nowhere near as exciting as it sounds.

Some kind of weed-ruined messenger of death at the 2012 UNODC meeting. Photo by Steve Rolles

For a meeting that's supposed to be dictating the future of global drug policy, it started off on a weirdly twee note. Queen Silvia of Sweden took the podium, looking regal; her country has one of the most militant antidrug governments in Europe, with harsh penalties for addicts who don't clean themselves up. In fact, most end up crossing the ten-mile Oresund bridge to seek help in Denmark, a country that provides secure drug-consumption rooms to addicts, where they can take whatever they want safely, under supervision, without being arrested for possession.

Sweden’s government, like many other governments in attendence, hews to the unfaltering and somewhat optimistic belief that, one day, our planet will be free of all psychoactive drugs. Sweden, alongside the US and Japan, is also one of the major donors to the UNODC’s $575 million budget.

But never mind all that—Queen Silvia was here because she's the patron of a really nice children’s charity. She said she's not a political person seconds before saying that we must have a “zero-tolerance” policy on drugs, because “we cannot afford to lose our children… we need to save the children.” Really.

A group of 40 children from 30 countries were quickly wheeled onto the stage. Two of them, a guy from Kenya and a girl from Israel, made short speeches about how punishing people who use drugs is a bad idea, which seemed to contradict Silvia's zero-tolerance policy. As it turns out, the speeches from those kids were one of the most sensible and challenging things I heard for the next 48 hours.

Raymond Yans, the head of the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board, stepped up next. Before this meeting, he had branded Uruguay’s government “pirates” for legalizing the production and use of cannabis. His speech kicked off a trend that proved to be popular at the conference: the endless churning out of completely meaningless and questionable statistics.

A Russian slide showing how money from growing opium in Afghanistan is laundered around the globe. Photo by Jackson Wood

According to Yans, prohibition has resulted in 100 million fewer opium addicts than there would have been had drugs not been outlawed, a telling statistic if only it were based on reality. He also claimed, bizarrely, that prohibition is the only reason illicit drug use is lower than alcohol or tobacco use—in his view, if drugs were legalized, millions of people would turn their backs on their families and jobs and transform the world into one giant Zurich "needle park." That runs counter to what some studies on marijuana have shown about prohibition preventing drug use; in fact, keeping drugs illegal may make it harder to fight back against drug abuse.

Next up, to get the conference started in earnest, was Yuri Fedotov, one of Russia’s highest-ranking diplomats and the executive director of the UNODC. Espionage aficionados may remember him from his previous job as Russia’s ambassador to the UK—during his watch, former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned to death with radioactive polonium-210 in London. He began his speech by saying that while there has been success in reducing cocaine production, there have been setbacks in regard to the online drug trade, legal highs, increased opium cultivation, and trafficking in West Africa.

Fedotov is an odd choice as the world’s drug czar. His country is widely accepted as having one of the most barbaric antidrug regimes in the world. Russia has horrific levels of HIV infection, its government has banned methadone, the press regularly ostracizes heroin addicts, and "treatment" programs have led to people being beaten, raped, and tortured in custody, then left to rot in correctional drug gulags.

Despite his own nation's policies, Fedotov told the conference's assembled delegates that it’s best if countries avoid jailing drug addicts and instead respect their human rights and provide them with the best treatment available. This kind of doublethink was another popular trend at the conference, with many of the world’s most extreme "tough on drugs" proponents also gabbing on about the huge importance of human rights, individual freedom, and their citizens’ right to health.

Fedotov ascended to the top post at the UNODC in 2010 (he replaced Italian Antonio Maria Costa, who famously said that drug money had kept the world afloat during the global financial crisis), and there's a growing feeling that the baton of Global Drug Policeman has been passed from the United States—the driving force behind the UNODC for the last 50 years—to Russia.

Queen Silvia of Sweden and UNODC executive director Yuri Fedotov. Photo courtesy of István Gábor Takács, HCLU – Drugreporter

Thanks to the success of stoners in Washington and Colorado, America has mostly lost the international antidrug cred that Ronald Reagan worked so hard to establish. Eager to prove his own cred, Fedotov chastized the international community, particularly the US and the UK, for failing to stem the rise of opium cultivation in Afghanistan—and for failing to stop drug use in general. It's “a fiasco” that needs sorting out, he said.

Echoing the way the drug war has been fought, many speakers just went through the motions, relaying meaningless stats about how many tons of drugs they’ve confiscated with how many boats and planes. Drugs are a scourge, a menace, a plague. We must tackle this problem head-on, lest our children become a generation of drug zombies. Etc. Poor countries where drugs are produced and trafficked blamed the richer consumer countries for failing to stem the demand for drugs, while the rich nations patronized them with offers of aid to help end corruption and to get peasants to grow edible crops instead of snortable ones.

After sneaking through the back door of a "roundtable discussion" that a security guard was convinced I was banned from attending, I entered a room in which Kazakhstan was announcing a program aimed at weeding out the drug fiends by, absurdly, randomly drug-testing all its schoolchildren. I also found out that Israel is working with internet providers to monitor and shut down online sites selling legal highs, while Pakistan and Ghana are demanding a worldwide ban on the production of the cold medicine ephedrine because it’s used to make meth. (India responded by telling Pakistan that that was a dumb idea.)

The majority of these meetings, though, consisted of speakers from different countries and organizations droning on about how drugs are bad. So I’ll cut to the conference's most interesting meeting, which was presumably the only thing that stopped these hundreds of delegates from abandoning the extraterritorial zone and heading into Vienna to eat sausages and look at statues of historical military generals.

A legalization activist tries to remind UN delegates that, in 18th-century Austria, coffee was banned, and soldiers used to smell citizens to see if they had been drinking it. Photo courtesy of István Gábor Takács, HCLU – Drugreporter

In one corner, leading the pantomime villains of global drug policy, sat Russia. Russia’s main allies were Iran (whose speaker was surrounded by four bodyguards at all times), Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Thailand, China, and Singapore—all hardcore prohibitionists and fans of such policies as tying addicts to bedposts, refusing them medical treatment, locking them up, and, in some cases, just straight-up executing them. Their spiel is that despite the death penalty for drug offenses being against international law, it’s no one else’s business what they do to their drug users. Which doesn't sound like a very UN thing to say.

In the other corner sat the pro-reform countries: Ecuador, Uruguay, Mexico, Portugal, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Switzerland. They used the meeting as a chance to express their disapproval of the UN’s reluctance to condemn the worst excesses of the drug war. With a growing tide of liberal drug laws being adopted, these countries pleaded with the UN to acknowledge the fact that there are alternatives to the war on drugs, which was started in earnest over half a century ago at the UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961.

Diego Canepa, the vice president of Uruguay—which legalized the production of cannabis at the beginning of the year—told the meeting, “Our country has the right to implement a public policy that does not harm others, and that promotes health and seeks to improve the quality of life. We need changes, innovations. And it is what we are doing.”

(I ended up bumping into Canepa and hanging out with him one evening. For anyone interested in the personalities of politicians from around the globe—he seemed like a good guy.)

Delegates in the conference's main hall

Despite the widening chasm between these two sides, the purpose of the meeting was to reach a consensus and publish a "joint ministerial statement," and in preparation for this, negotiators had been desperately scrabbling to find common ground. That wasn't easy: When Mexico, the country with arguably the most to lose from the status quo (80,000 of its citizens have died as a result of the drug war since 2006), asked for the statement to include a line acknowledging the simple fact that there is a debate to be had on global drug policy, they were blackballed by the hard-liners.

So at the end of the meeting in Vienna, the jargon-filled, 45-point statement was nothing like a consensus, but rather a list of vague pointlessnesses about how drugs are bad, traffickers should get caught, and addicts should be helped so they don’t spread disease. There's no mention of the huge changes in approach adopted in places as varied as South America, the US, New Zealand, Portugal, and the Czech Republic—and no condemnation of governments that have adopted the death penalty for drug offenses.

So it was business as usual, even after all that talking.

“It’s just a bland restatement of previous commitments, meaningless platitudes, and delusional self-congratulation,” said Steve Rolles, a senior policy analyst at the UK-based Transform Drug Policy Foundation. “What we are looking at is the rather desperate last gasps of the war on drugs as a global framework."

The UN has enabled the world to agree to disagree, packaged it as perfect harmony with a joint statement, and nodded in approval as countries treat people like dogs and even execute them because they're unfortunate enough to become addicted to drugs.

In the real world, the global war on drugs as a joint enterprise is unraveling fast. But inside the walls of the United Nations, everything is just fine.

Follow Max Daly on Twitter.

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