Drug Policy

That Time the UN Almost Called for Decriminalizing Drug Use

Virgin CEO Richard Branson leaks document to Drug Policy Alliance.

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Here is a story that shows both promise in ending the global war on drugs and why such a victory for freedom will be a long-time coming:

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) appeared set to call on governments to end the criminalization of drug use and possession, according to DPA Honorary Board Member Richard Branson – but in a dramatic turn of events withdrew a briefing paper under pressure from at least one country, according to the BBC.

"On the one hand it's promising that such a powerful statement strongly affirming the need to decriminalize drug use and possession made it this far in the UN process – that in itself represents a dramatic evolution from previous decades when any talk of decriminalization was studiously suppressed," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.  "It reflects both growing support for decriminalization in Europe and Latin America as well as the insistence of UN health, development and human rights agencies that drug control policies adhere to international conventions in those areas as well."

There's a lot left to be filled in, of couse, about this particular document, especially its legitimacy and provenance. At this stage, I'm highly skeptical that there's a serious move afoot in the United Nations on this score. Just like individual nation-states, the United Nations has anti-drug regulations marbled throughout many if not most of its international governing conventions; for all sorts of reasons, it's never exactly been fashion-forward on drug liberalization.

But as DPA's Nadelmann says, this sort of news is not coming out of the blue: Dozens of countries have relaxed criminal penalties for drug use and possession and whole countries such as Portugal have decriminalized drugs with very positive results. Domestically, we've seen the same trend and good (or at least non-worrying) outcomes:

U.S. jurisdictions and other countries that have adopted less punitive policies toward drug possession have not experienced any significant increases in drug use, drug-related harm or drug-related crime relative to more punitive countries. In fact, many states that treat possession as a misdemeanor have slightly lower rates of illicit drug use and higher rates of admission to drug treatment than states that consider it a felony.

Read more from Drug Policy Alliance, of which Richard Branson is an honorary board member.

Related video: In 2009, Glenn Greenwald authored a study about Portugal's decriminalization for the Cato Institute. He talked with Reason TV about how that experiment was going.