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UN backs prohibitionist drug policies despite call for more 'humane solution'
Wednesday 20 Apr 2016
The first United Nations general assembly special session on drugs in almost two decades has approved an agreement that leaves in place the prohibitionist policies banning narcotics use, despite growing international discontent with the “war on drugs” – and the concerns of the nations that called the meeting.
The 2016 general assembly special session – known as UNgass – was scheduled after lobbying by Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia, countries which have suffered disproportionate violence from narco-trafficking. Leaders of the three countries have called for a more “humane solution” to the drugs problem that goes beyond a focus on enforcement and criminalisation.
“So far, the solutions [to control drugs and crime] implemented by the international community have been frankly insufficient,” Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto told the general assembly on Tuesday.
Mexico has been so hard-hit by narco-trafficking related murders that between 2010 and 2016, life expectancy fell by more than half a year for men in the country.
“We must move beyond prohibition to effective prevention,” said Peña Nieto, indicating his administration would in the near future consider decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana and the legalization of medical marijuana.
Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales was also critical of the existing international drug control regime, saying that: “People – not substances – [should be] at the center of these policies.”
But within the General Assembly, the rift between countries interested in drug policy reform and those with repressive drug control regimes was evident.
A delegate for Indonesia was booed when he defended the country’s use of the death penalty as “an important component” of the country’s drug control policy.
Meanwhile, Norway’s call for an approach to drug control centered on “human rights” was celebrated by the audience of international delegates and activists present.
“The [negotiation] process failed to gather a consensus on steps Norway views [as] essential,” the Norwegian delegate told the general assembly, saying that opium replacement therapy and an end to drug crime executions should have been included. “Norway intends to be a clear voice for a more progressive approach.”
The agreement adopted on the first day of the three-day summit included no criticism of the death penalty for drug crimes, and instead called for greater cooperation between nations, while maintaining the prohibitionist framework which criminalizes all drug use that is not for medical or scientific purposes.
The agreement – called an “outcome document” – was not a surprise for anyone in the room and was publicised in advance of the meeting and adopted almost immediately.
At the last UN special session on drugs, in 1998, international leaders agreed to work toward a “drug free world” by 2008.
Decriminalisation advocates now point to that slogan as emblematic of how out of step the UN is with modern drug policy, as an increasing number of countries liberalise drug laws, especially around marijuana.
Portugal decriminalised all drugs in 2001, while Switzerland has pioneered the policy of heroin prescription; the US states of Washington and Colorado have legalised the sale of marijuana for recreational purposes.
Uruguay will be the first country in the world to legalise sales of marijuana, while last year Canada’s newly elected prime minister, Justin Trudeau, repeated his promise to legalise recreational marijuana.
But on Tuesday UN Russian delegates, who helped negotiate the agreement, heralded the new policy documents as focused on “humankind”. Meanwhile, countries with liberal drug policies such as Uruguay, which legalized marijuana in 2014, called the agreement insufficient.
“This Ungass has provided a critical opportunity at a critical moment to build more [a] comprehensive … understanding of the challenge we face together,” said Yury Fedotov, the executive director of the UN’s office on drugs and crime, and part of the Russian delegation to the UN. “The emphasis on the health and welfare of humankind – that is the founding purpose of the international drug control conventions.”
Fedotov’s office and the UN commission on narcotic drugs lead negotiations between countries on the drug control document adopted Tuesday. The bulk of negotiations took place in Vienna in March.
Non-governmental organisations in particular have criticized the negotiation process, pointing out that many Caribbean and African nations have no permanent representation in Austria.
Further, the new drug policy document does nothing to address the continued use of execution for drug crimes, a common practice in countries such as Iran and China, which supported the UN’s continued silence on the issue.
However, some advocacy groups have pointed to progress in the outcome document, especially in its call for promotion of opioid treatment programs and overdose medications, Naloxone being the best known.
And although the document avoided the words “harm reduction”, a common umbrella term in public health circles, the document called on nations to consider programs such as needle exchanges, which provide clean syringes to injection drug users. Such programs have been shown to reduce new cases of blood borne diseases, such as HIV and Hepatitis C.
UN meeting on drug policy is marked by an unofficial holiday: 4/20
International drug control policies are derived from three main UN documents: the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs – which first laid out prohibitionist policies, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotics. These three documents define how member states should develop domestic policies to combat drug use.
At one time, the US was a staunch proponent of the prohibitionist drug policies laid out in the UN conventions. However, successful legalisation of marijuana by US states has undermined much of America’s credibility on the issue, and many feel it is increasingly difficult for the US to take a hardline stance on drugs.
The president of the International Narcotics Control Board, a “quasi-judicial” body created by the 1961 convention, called out the contradiction in his statements to the general assembly.
“The non-medical use of substances, in particular cannabis, are in clear contravention of the conventions,” said INCB president Werner Sipp. “They defy the international conventions.”
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