Drug Policy

U.N. Drug Policy Meeting's Banal Consensus Masks Encouraging Disagreements

"Putting people first" might mean legalizing drugs, or it might mean beheading drug dealers.



The Global Commission on Drug Policy, which includes statesmen such as former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, and the former presidents of several Latin American countries, is disappointed by the outcome of the U.N. General Assembly special session (UNGASS) on "the world drug problem," which ended yesterday. Annan et al. favor "diverse experiments in legally regulating markets in currently illicit drugs" as well as decriminalization of possession for personal use á la Portugal. Not surprisingly, the unreconstructed drug warriors who run countries such as Russia, China, Iran, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia are not keen on any of that. Most of them are not even ready to stop executing drug offenders. It is nevertheless possible to detect rays of hope in both the banal consensus that was reached and the disagreements that preceded it.

The theme of the last UNGASS on drug policy, which was held 18 years ago, was "A Drug-Free World: We Can Do It." If your reaction to that slogan is "no, we can't, and we shouldn't try," you may be slightly encouraged by the more modest aim of this week's meeting: "promoting a society free of drug abuse." Everyone can get on board with that, because abuse is bad by definition. Once you start to define abuse and talk in more detail about how it should be curtailed, of course, the consensus falls apart. But the shift from creating "a drug-free world," a goal that is neither desirable nor achievable, to reducing drug abuse strikes me as an improvement.

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says the UNGASS participants "delivered a clear message: that they care about the world drug problem, and specifically about the people most affected by this problem." The Saudis are nodding along: We kill because we care.

You may wonder: It took three days to come up with a general expression of sympathy? Actually, it took a couple of years

The UNODC adds that "more than ever before, the global consensus recognizes that the solution to the world drug problem lies in a more humane, public-health oriented, human rights compliant, evidence-based approach that addresses this issue in all its complexity." As UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov explains, it's all about "putting people first." Reformers like to hear those phrases, but they are so vague that they can be used to justify any policy. Remember: This consensus includes China and Saudi Arabia.

Still, the disagreement masked by the false UNGASS consensus is a positive development. The meeting was called at the behest of Latin American countries that long to give up the bloody burden of helping the U.S. government enforce its pharmacological prejudices. Internally, their governments are moving toward decriminalization of drug possession and legalization of marijuana for medical or general use. Externally, they would like to renegotiate a raw deal in which they suffer from shocking violence and corruption so that U.S. officials can pretend they are stopping taboo substances from entering American bloodstreams.

While our government is not quite ready to give up that arrangement, its insistence on prohibitionist purity has been tempered by the fact that marijuana is now legal for recreational use in four states and the nation's capital. The U.S., which not so long ago was threatening to shut down the border with Canada if our neighbor to the north dared to decriminalize marijuana possession, now supports a flexible reading of international drug control treaties that allows a wide variety of policies, ranging from "very strict drug approaches" (like this?) to legalizing "entire categories of drugs."

As William Brownfield, the top drug warrior at the State Department, explained in 2014, "I would have to take that position. How could I, a representative of the government of the United States of America, be intolerant of a government that permits any experimentation with legalization of marijuana if two of the 50 states of the United States of America have chosen to walk down that road?" Talking to reporters last month, Brownfield was still emphasizing "the inherent discretion within those [drug control] conventions" and "tolerance for governments exploring their own national policies." At least some of them are bound to stumble into something better than the status quo.