At the United Nations, are we any closer to ending the global addiction to prohibition?

The unregulated, unlicensed drug market is the purest, most deadly form of capitalism – prioritising profit above all else. It is time for an approach rooted in public health rather than criminal justice. Español

Benjamin Ramm
18 April 2016

Poppy field, Kandahar, Afghanistan, 2016. Allauddin Khan/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Poppy field, Kandahar, Afghanistan, 2016. Allauddin Khan/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The ‘war on drugs’ is not a policy, but an ideology – a dogma insensitive to the facts, and uncaring of the consequences. On the evidence, no global initiative has failed as emphatically: prohibitionist measures have not reduced the drug supply, but created instead a lucrative industry in the provision of narcotics by gangs and cartels. (In 2016, illegal drugs are literally worth more than their weight in gold). The drug war has punished the most vulnerable in society: the poor; racial and ethnic minorities; and, increasingly, women. It is a world war – from the poppy fields of Afghanistan to the streets of Chicago – with a terrible human toll: in Latin America alone, deaths from the drug war exceed that of the conflict in Syria.

At the request of three Latin American nations – Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala – the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the world drug problem was brought forward from 2019 to 2016. But this sense of urgency was not reflected in the preparatory meeting in Vienna in March, where the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) published an ‘outcome document’ that broadly maintains the status quo – a position “almost entirely disconnected from reality”, according to Ann Fordham of the International Drug Policy Consortium. Negotiations in Vienna followed a pattern familiar to even casual observers of the UN: tense final hours of dispute resolution, followed by a sense of anticlimax upon publication, with a statement of consensus that sacrifices reform in the name of unity. Statements that challenged the failings of the current system were either vetoed or watered down.

The drafting of the document was a profoundly undemocratic process.

The drafting of the document was a profoundly undemocratic process – both unrepresentative and lacking transparency. Over 100 member states, most from the global south, played no role at all in the negotiations, despite being legally bound by international treaties to implement policies that disproportionately impact them. They will not have an opportunity to debate or redraft, because the document will be signed at the start of the Special Session in New York on Tuesday. Seasoned observers seemed demoralised, and were almost universal in their condemnation. Steve Rolles of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation described the document as “a profound betrayal for the many stakeholders across the world who were promised real dialogue”.

How will this lack of democracy impact on the outcome of UNGASS? “In diplomatic parlance, Vienna rather than New York will rule”, predicts former president of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo – meaning that an agreement negotiated behind closed doors will trump the demand for reform. Mexico is on the front line of the drug war, and its citizens can verify that hardline policies have only entrenched corruption, violence and intimidation, by both state and non-state actors. Mexico led the charge for the CND to acknowledge the socio-economic issues that drive cultivation, production and trafficking, but geography and geopolitics limit its autonomy, and experimentation is stymied by a strict international legal framework that offers little flexibility for the piloting of a regulated market. (Decriminalisation of demand must go hand in hand with regulation of supply, if not to enhance the power of traffickers).

It is important to frame the ongoing drug war in the context of the industries that rely on its continuation. The Panama Papers revealed how vast profits from drug cartels have been laundered into legality, while possession of minor amounts of cannabis can result in arrest. (In 2014, 1.5 million Americans were arrested on non-violent drugs charges; 83% solely for possession). In the US, a staggering 500,000 citizens are currently incarcerated for narcotics offences – more than the total amount of prisoners for all crime in western Europe. The privatised prison system relies on mass incarceration, as do the prison-guard unions that fund anti-legalisation campaigns. The US spends $50 billion a year on counter-narcotics; it would receive almost the exact same amount if drugs were taxed at rates comparable to alcohol and tobacco. Americans know that drug prohibition has been no more successful than alcohol prohibition: 70% disapprove of current policy, while over 50% favour decriminalisation.

Viable alternatives exist.

It is time for an approach rooted in public health rather than criminal justice. The unregulated, unlicensed drug market is the purest, most deadly form of capitalism – prioritising profit above all else. By transferring the supply of drugs from medical professionals to unscrupulous dealers, prohibition has increased the likelihood of contamination and forced vulnerable users to engage in crime. In addition, it has prevented vital research into potentially life-enhancing treatments. Professor David Nutt has described the prohibition of research on psychedelics as “the biggest missed opportunity in the history of medicine”. Recent neuroscientific findings have highlighted the potential of both LSD and psilocybin (magic mushrooms) to alleviate depression and tackle addiction, with particularly striking success in curing alcoholism.

Viable alternatives exist. Taxing consumption, and reinvesting revenue into prevention and treatment, has brought positive results. Portugal implemented this policy 15 years ago, and has seen a 50% decrease in injected drug use. The recent success – socially and fiscally – of the decriminalisation of cannabis in four US states reflects a growing understanding of the benefits of regulation. While federal law remains inflexible and treaties are globally binding, the US is becoming less hawkish about implementation. Against international law, Uruguay has decriminalised cannabis, while Canada has pledged to regulate it, and legislative proposals are under consideration worldwide. Notably, it is the authoritarian reactionary states – Russia, China, and Iran – that are pressing for even harsher prohibitionist and punitive policies. This divergence in opinion is creating tension, which will be on display at UNGASS. As Alex Wodak of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation notes, “international consensus is irretrievably broken and the fractures are multiple, deep, severe and irreparable.”

Over the coming days, I will be speaking to a range of voices in and around the Special Session, including government representatives, civil society activists, and witnesses from the front line of the drug war. Will global leaders heed the reasoned, evidence-based case for reform? We already know the formidable cost of not doing so: millions of lives ruined, billions of dollars wasted. As a famous user of LSD once observed, “the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting different results.”

This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organisation with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights. The partnership coincides with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.

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