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Myths, Moralism, and Hypocrisy Drive the International Drug Control System

Julia Buxton is Associate Dean and Professor of Comparative Politics at the School of Public Policy, Central European University, Budapest. Follow her on Twitter: @BuxtonJulia

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.

In April 2016, the international community will convene for the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS). This event, held two years early due to the urgency of the drug situation and intensity of drug-related violence, presents an opportunity to question the fundamentals of international drug policy. Despite overwhelming evidence that a century-long quest to control human behavior and drug markets through international treaties and national legislation has failed, there is little expectation of change. The vested interests in retaining the status quo are significant, with sclerosis legitimized through the recurrent exhortation to improve international co-operation.

Major institutional and policy change is required and will ultimately be unavoidable. The treaty system and international drug control institutions stemming from the first international drug conference in 1909 have set us on an orientation within drug policy that does not reflect the dynamics of global drug markets or protect us from drug related harms. Control efforts and resources are skewed toward drugs such as cocaine and heroin, when synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine dominate markets. Enforcement is focused on countries of the global south, when the global north is the world’s key zone for the manufacture and export of illicit substances, and where the bulk of drug trade profits are realized.  

Framed by history


From its initiation, the drug control system has responded to the perceived risk from narcotic plants grown in the global south. In 1909, the ‘great powers’ of the day met in Shanghai to discuss controls on opium, a freely traded commodity derived from opium poppy. The result was a seismic market shift, overturning centuries of colonial engagement in opium poppy cultivation in far flung empires of south Asia, and ending the popular use of opium for purposes of pain or pleasure.

The resulting 1912 International Opium Convention of The Hague was the first international drug treaty. It set the intellectual and institutional direction for the drug control system, strategies and approaches that operate today. To put it another way, today we respond to the complex, transnational challenges of HIV/AIDS, internet-based drug sales and international organized crime through a framework devised by imperial powers at a time when women could not vote or wear trousers, when nose size and skin color were seen to determine brain size and civility, and when addiction was understood as a problem of ‘godlessness’.

Over the course of a century, the treaty system has evolved through to the most recent 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, incorporating into the control system a diversity of plants, weeds, shrubs and chemicals deemed “evil” and harmful to the “health and welfare of mankind”. At no point has the United Nations, which administers and oversees the treaty system, reconsidered first principles – as set out in 1912 and institutionalized in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs – that it is desirable or even possible for states to prohibit access to a selected range of intoxicating substances. 

Sovereign states remain locked into the goal of eliminating, or at least significantly curbing the production, distribution and use of drugs. They must cooperate on international control efforts and, in line with the 1961 Single Convention, they are required to treat participation in the drug trade as “punishable offenses when committed intentionally”, and as “serious offenses […] liable to adequate punishment particularly by imprisonment or other penalties of deprivation of liberty”.

A legacy of failure


These efforts to control human behavior and to terminate the supply of harmful substances cannot succeed, even if recurrently stepped up, militarized and coercively enforced. According to the latest figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 1 out of 20 people between the ages of 15 and 64 years used an illicit drug in 2013. This is despite punitive national policies to prevent consumption, including by depriving users of illegal drugs of their freedom, access to their children, employment and medical care, and even their right to life.

The use of cocaine, heroin, cannabis and amphetamines remains a ‘global habit’ in a borderless world, configured around a sophisticated, lucrative and innovative transnational market that supplies a diversity of ever cheaper drugs to an estimated 246 million people.  

The 1961 Single Convention looked to eliminate opium use within 15 years, with a 25-year schedule for cocaine and cannabis. In 1998, the UN promoted a “drug-free world”, to be achieved within ten years, and a host of cultivating countries have, over the decades, committed to achieving zero-cultivation of narcotic drug crops. But just as demand reduction targets have never been met, neither have those relating to supply. At over 7,000 tons in 2014, opium production reached its highest level since the 1930s. There was an estimated 120,000 hectares under coca bush cultivation in 2013 (with potential for the manufacture of 662 to 902 tons of cocaine). Meanwhile, as stated in the UNODC’s “World Drug Report 2015”, advances “in cannabis plant cultivation techniques and the use of genetically selected strains have led to an increase in the number of cannabis harvests, as well as in the yield and potency of cannabis”.

As set out by Yury Fedotov, executive director of the UNODC, “we have to admit that, globally, the demand for drugs has not been substantially reduced and that some challenges exist in the implementation of the drug control system”. This acknowledgement has not led to any questioning of mission, or the plausibility of prohibiting access to certain drugs – even with evidence that nine out of ten users are not considered dependent or problematic. Neither has there been engagement with the reality that making certain substances illegal has made them more attractive to produce and supply. Criminalization has converted freely growing plants into billion dollar crops, high profit margins incentivize illicit supply, while the ‘success’ of drug seizures serves only to elevate prices. A utopian goal is being pursued through a strategy that makes it unachievable. 

A northern bias


In policy and implementation, drug control remains overwhelmingly preoccupied with opium poppy and coca leaf. International counter-narcotics efforts and assistance – both military and development – have focused on ‘producer’ states such as Colombia, Bolivia and Peru (coca leaf), Mexico (opium poppy) and south Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Burma and Laos PDR (opium poppy). However, as successive UNODC World Drug Reports demonstrate, opioids and cocaine are not the most widely consumed drugs, or arguably the most dangerous.

Contemporary drug markets, measured in terms of seizures and reported use, are increasingly dominated by synthetic drugs: ‘Amphetamine Type Substances’ (ATS) such as methamphetamine and amphetamine, as well as Ecstasy (MDMA) and a raft of ‘New Psychoactive Substances’ (NPS) of which 450 were reported in 2014. The key manufacture and export zones for these drugs are not the global south, but west and east European countries and north America. Patterns of drug flows are the reverse of the dynamics envisioned in the treaty framework. The old delineation of consumer and producer states no longer exists, and the global north is now the key producer region, including for cannabis.

This raises the more difficult question of accounting for the inconsistent application of counter-narcotics efforts, and the gross inequalities in terms of costs and impacts. An estimated 164,000 people were killed during the counter-narcotics surge of 2007 to 2014 in Mexico, a death toll higher than Iraq and Afghanistan combined. But the thought of militarizing supply control in the Netherlands – a leading producer country – on the level experienced by Mexico, is unconscionable. Why are Colombia, Bolivia and Afghanistan acceptable theaters for violent weaponized counter-narcotic operations, and not Poland or Canada?

Moreover, the lack of high level violence in the drug markets of these northern producer countries signifies that illicit markets can be peaceful. From this perspective, it is the disruptive market interventions, weapons flows and training of paramilitary counter-narcotics units that are the drivers of violence in the global south, not the drug markets themselves. Similarly, in relation to northern interventions, how can it be the case that the EU and US fund cannabis eradication in the global south while legalizing or decriminalizing domestically? 

The north’s deflection of its leading role in the drug trade is institutionalized in the treaty system and international drug control institutions. The result is that we have remarkably little information about the evolving threats to mankind’s ‘health and welfare’ posed by synthetics. As set out in the preface to the 2013 World Drug Report, ATS use “remains widespread globally, and appears to be increasing in most regions”, with crystalline methamphetamine “an imminent threat”. Yet while we have each hectare of coca and opium meticulously researched, there is a paucity of data and information on the manufacture of synthetic drugs, or their consumption. It was not until 2008 that the UNODC launched dedicated ATS analysis through the UNODC Global SMART Program(Synthetics Monitoring: Analyzes, Reporting and Trends), with the aim of generating, analyzing and reporting on the synthetic drug market, and improving global responses to the rise in ATS manufacture, trafficking and consumption.

Drug control is constantly re-legitimized by a moral narrative of protecting health, welfare and security. Yet by downplaying the role of European and North American countries in the drug trade, and the historical salience of synthetic markets by default, the system is creating public health risks, it cannot anticipate change in dynamic markets, and it has an insufficient evidence base for policy. Indicative of this is the acknowledgement in the 2016 World Drug Report that, “the sheer number, diversity and transient nature of NPS currently on the market partly explain why there are still only limited data available on the prevalence of use of many NPS. Those difficulties also explain why both the regulation of NPS and the capacity to address health problems related to NPS continue to be challenging.”

In 2012, the International Narcotic Control Board that monitors treaty enforcement, set out that, “dividing countries into the categories of “drug-producing”, “drug-consuming” or “transit countries” has long ceased to be realistic. To varying degrees, all countries are drug-producers and drug-consumers and have drugs transiting through them.” Despite institutional acknowledgement of market transformations, the new geopolitical realities of the drug trade are not reflected in enforcement activities, in the language of drug control institutions, or in the allocation of resources for research, education, treatment and rehabilitation. These remain concentrated on coca and opium poppy, cocaine and heroin.

From the local to the global level, we are, with some small exceptions, locked into arcane, counterproductive and illogical policies that violate fundamental rights and freedoms, spread disease, exacerbate violence, and which impede development – in the view of other UN agencies. The UNODC, which sits in an institutional silo, uses the benign term “unintended consequences” to refer to the wholly negative impact of counter-narcotics policies and how these are disproportionately borne along stratified racial, class and geographic lines. The myths, Victorian moralism and hypocrisy that frame international drug policy need to be confronted if we are to progress to rights-based interventions that genuinely reduce harm. In other words, drug policies which are fit for the twenty-first century.           

This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organization 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.

Chronicle AM: Canada Wakes Up the CND, Tampa Pot Decrim, CA Legalization Init Getting Signatures, More... (3/17/16)

California's leading legalization initiative is one-quarter of the way home, Tampa is the latest Florida locality to decriminalize pot possession, the Canadians wake up the Commission on Narcotic Drugs with a very reform-oriented speech, and more.

Canada came out strong for harm reduction and marijuana legalization at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna this week.
Marijuana Policy

California AUMA Legalization Initiative Has 25% of Needed Signatures. The Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA) initiative has accumulated nearly 100,000 signatures since petitioning began in January. It has until July 5 to turn in a total of 365,880 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November ballot. While other initiatives are out there, this one, supported by tech billionaire Sean Parker and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), is the one most likely to have the dollars behind to actually make the ballot.

Tampa Decriminalizes Pot Possession. The city council has passed an ordinance that decriminalizes the possession of up to 20 grams of marijuana. The move was supported by the mayor and the police chief. Now, possession will no longer be a misdemeanor, but will be a civil infraction punishable by a $75 fine for a first offense, $150 for a second, and $450 for any subsequent offenses.  Tampa now joins a number of South Florida localities that have decriminalized, as well as Central Florida's Volusia County.

Medical Marijuana

New York State Senator Unveils Medical Marijuana Expansion Package. State Sen. Diane Savino  (D-Staten Island) has introduced a package of bills—Senate Bills 6998, 6999, and 7000—designed to expand the state's constricted medical marijuana program. One bill would allow nurse practitioners to recommend medical marijuana, another would allow the five organizations licensed to grow and sell medical marijuana to double the amount of dispensaries they can open from four to eight, while another would expand the conditions for which marijuana could be recommended.

Law Enforcement

Denver Cops Instructed to Not Punch Suspects Believed to Be Swallowing Drugs. The Denver Police Department's Office of the Independent Monitor recommended Tuesday that the department adopt new policies to provide guidance to officers when they arrest a suspect believed to be trying to swallow the evidence.  "The OIM recommends that the DPD revise its Use of Force Policy to provide specific guidance on what types of force are permitted, and prohibited, to remove potential contraband from the mouths of persons being placed under arrest. The OIM further recommends that this revised policy prohibit the use of strikes to force persons being place under arrest to spit out potential contraband," the report reads. The recommendation comes in the wake of a widely-decried 2014 incident in which an officer was recorded repeatedly punching a man who was allegedly trying to stuff a heroin-filled sweat sock into his mouth.


Groups File Brief Seeking Reduction in Life Sentence for Silk Road's Ross Ulbricht. The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) filed an amicus brief Thursday urging the US 2nd Court of Appeal to reduced the life without parole sentence meted out to Ross Ulbricht, who was convicted of operating the Silk Road drug sales website. Joining DPA in the brief were Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, JustLeadershipUSA, and retired federal judge Nancy Gertner.  "Mr. Ulbricht’s draconian sentence flies in the face of evolving standards of decency," said Jolene Forman, Staff Attorney at the Office of Legal Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance and lead author of the brief. "Nationally, lawmakers are working across the political aisle to reduce harsh sentences for drug offenses. And, many of our allies in Europe consider life without parole sentences inhumane."


Canada's New Liberal Government Wakes Up the Commission on Narcotic Drugs Meeting. A speech from a Canadian representative at the Commission on Narcotics Drugs (CND) meeting in Vienna this week was met with eruptions of applause from the audience after the speaker, Assistant Deputy Minister of Health Hilary Geller, made clear that the Liberals were embracing harm reduction, including safe injection sites, and marijuana legalization. Geller's speech not only contrasted sharply with the previous Conservative government's anti-drug reform positions, but also with the cautious pronouncements made by other nations. At the end of the speech, the audience of government officials and NGO leaders gave Geller a standing ovation.

Mexico Captures Cartel Leader Tied to Border Shootouts. After a bloody weekend in Reynosa, where at least a dozen people were killed in clashes between cartel gunmen and soldiers and cartel gunmen set up burning street barricades, federal police Monday captured the Gulf Cartel leader who was allegedly the target of the federal action on the border. The man arrested is Cleofas Alberto Martinez Gutierrez, who officials said was the cartel's number two boss in Reynosa. They found him at a Mexico City race track. 

Will UNGASS 2016 Be the Beginning of the End for the War on Drugs?

This article is by Ann Fordham and Martin Jelsma, and is republished from openDemocracy. It is part a series of articles about this April's UNGASS. Further information appears below.

In April 2016, the UN will dedicate, for the third time in its history, a United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) to discuss global drug policy. The UNGASS has the potential to be a ground-breaking moment that could change the course of the international drug control system. However, political divisions and entrenched institutional dynamics have dampened hopes that it will go down in history as the beginning of the end of the war on drugs.

At the joint request of Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala, the General Assembly decided to bring forward the convention of a special session to assess "the achievements and challenges in countering the world drug problem", originally foreseen for 2019 or 2020. The three countries stated at the time that "revising the approach on drugs maintained so far by the international community can no longer be postponed", and the UN needed to exercise leadership to "conduct an in-depth review analyzing all available options, including regulatory or market measures, in order to establish a new paradigm that would impede the flow of resources to organized crime groups". An international meeting had to be convened, "capable of taking the decisions necessary to increase the effectiveness of the strategies and instruments with which the global community addresses the challenges of drugs and their consequences".

Conventional drug control wisdom has put forward the view that stopping the supply of drugs at the source would solve the 'world drug problem', but Latin American countries bear witness to the failure of this approach. Stirred into action by the futility of spending billions of dollars to fight an unwinnable and increasingly violent war on drugs, it is no surprise that political leaders from Latin America have been at the forefront of the drug policy debate. From their perspective, the high human cost in terms of violence, insecurity, mass incarceration and the exacerbation of the social and economic vulnerability of some of society’s most marginalised groups – can no longer be justified as necessary collateral damage in pursuit of eradicating drug markets.

A growing group of Latin American and Caribbean countries are calling for a real discussion on alternative policies. In the meantime, Uruguay has moved to create the world's first national legally regulated cannabis market for recreational use, and similar initiatives have happened in the US at the state level. This opening up of the long entrenched and seemingly immovable discussion on prohibitionist drug control principles is unprecedented and has implications for global policy.

In this context, the UNGASS in April represents a critical juncture, an opportunity for an honest evaluation of global drug policy and how to address the most pressing challenges going forward. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in recognition of this rare and important opportunity, has urged member states to use the 2016 UNGASS "to conduct a wide-ranging and open debate that considers all options."

The UNGASS preparations

The initial discussions to prepare for the UNGASS were fraught with disagreements over many procedural aspects. These included difficult negotiations over the extent to which the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna would lead the process; how to strike the right balance between the UN capitals of Vienna, Geneva and New York in the preparations; how to ensure meaningful involvement of all relevant UN agencies, academia and civil society; and – last but not least – how open the debate should be: should it be restricted to a discussion of how to improve the implementation of the 2009 Political Declaration and the achievement of its targets for 2019, or should the UNGASS be an opportunity to challenge the current global drug control strategy, possibly even questioning its foundation of the three UN drug conventions?


These difficult negotiations, which on the surface often appeared to be arguments over procedure, reflected the deep political divisions within the international drug policy debate. The much-revered 'Vienna Consensus' continues to weaken as the divide between some governments becomes increasingly irreconcilable. A growing number of countries now believe that the traditional repressive drug control approach, based on zero-tolerance, has not worked and has led to disastrous consequences for human rights, public health, citizen security and sustainable development, and as a result it has to be modernised.


Some countries calling for an open and inclusive debate at the UNGASS questioned whether this could be truly achieved with a process led by the Vienna-based drug control apparatus, given that the CND, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) have all gained quite a conservative reputation over the decades. Conducting all the preparations in Vienna led to a further problem for inclusivity, given that at least 70 member states do not have permanent representation there and would therefore struggle to fully participate in the process. The point of convening an UNGASS, is that by definition all UN member states and the whole UN system should be included on a equal basis, but limiting the political negotiations on the outcomes exclusively to Vienna, means that in practice the countries and UN agencies not represented in Vienna have much less influence on the process.

In the end, the hard fought-over resolution on the procedures decided that the UNGASS "will have an inclusive preparatory process that includes extensive substantive consultations, allowing organs, entities and specialized agencies of the United Nations system, relevant international and regional organizations, civil society and other relevant stakeholders to fully contribute to the process", while the CND "as the central policymaking body within the United Nations system dealing with drug-related matters, shall lead this process", inviting the president of the General Assembly to "support, guide and stay involved in the process".

UN special sessions are rare and crucial moments in UN-level policy making and are designed to ensure a coherent UN system-wide response to global problems of major concern to the international community. This has so far been less than optimal in discussions on global drug policy. After initial slow engagement from other key UN agencies, significant contributions have now been made from UNDP, UNAIDS and the WHO. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has also submitted a comprehensive reportthat outlines the most pertinent human rights violations in relation to drug control policies, while the Human Rights Council held a high level panel in September 2015 on the topic of "the impact of the world drug problem on the enjoyment of human rights".

A Civil Society Task Force (CSTF) was convened to ensure the participation of civil society in the process. The CSTF has representatives from every region of the world, as well as representatives of the key affected populations such as people who use drugs and subsistence farmers growing drug-linked crops among others. Initially, formal recognition of the CSTF was challenging – civil society has always had to fight for visibility and access at the CND but over the last year there has been increasing support for this initiative from governments.  A major victory for the CSTF was explicit support from the president of the General Assembly, who presided over an Informal Interactive Stakeholder Dialogue in New York on the 10 February 2016 organised with the CSTF in support of the preparatory process. The calls for progressive policiesbased in principles of harm reduction, of public health and of human rights from global civil society were deafening at the event.

Shifting regional priorities


In terms of regional perspectives, as noted above, the impetus for pushing for another UNGASS on drugs followed growing calls for reform from across Latin America at the highest political level. In fact, the previous UNGASS meetings in 1990 and 1998 had been convened in response to similar calls from Colombia and Mexico. Around them, a group of like-minded countries is gradually shaping up around certain positions, including Ecuador, Uruguay and Costa Rica and supported by Brazil and Bolivia on some issues. Caribbean countries have long been largely absent from the debate, not least because discussions have been limited to the CND in Vienna, where few Caribbean countries are represented – although Jamaica has recently joined the chorus of dissent and the discussion on several other islands has intensified.

In terms of European, particularly European Union (EU), engagement, this has been markedly different from Latin America and reflects the fact that Europe has managed to avoid the sharpest edges of a repressive approach to drug control. European countries have not experienced to the same extent, the high human cost in terms of violence, insecurity, and mass incarceration experienced in Latin America.  Of course the context is different, but in addition, many European governments have been pragmatic, have prioritised health care, harm reduction and human rights protection. While in Europe there are some serious issues regarding the criminalisation of people who use drugs and disproportionate sentences for minor drug offences, most European countries have managed to keep a certain distance from the escalation of the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s in the US, Latin America and Asia. At the international level, the leadership that EU governments have shown in this regard has been critical in shifting the drug policy narrative towards public health, harm reduction and human rights principles.

On issues where common positions can be found, the EU can have a strong impact on the global debate. For example, a united EU promoted the principle of proper sequencing with respect to ensuring that subsistence farmers have sufficient access to alternative livelihoods before being forced to abandon their drug-linked crops. The EU has also demonstrated unity and commitment on harm reduction and the removal of death penalty for drug offences, although a global consensus on these issues is not yet in sight.

Unfortunately, there are also crucial areas where a strong European voice has been absent, and the EU has failed to understand or acknowledge the sense of urgency and relevance of this UNGASS. This is clearly the case with regard to the shift in priority that Latin American countries are seeking, to move away from arresting small-time dealers and chasing drug shipments towards reducing drug-related violence, organised crime and corruption instead. In a sense, this is a plea for a harm reduction policy on the supply side: the drugs market will not be “eliminated or significantly reduced” by 2019, and it is time to forget the hollow illusion of a drug-free world.

Instead, government policy could be more sophisticated and focus on mitigating the most harmful aspects of the drug trade through reducing the levels of illicit drug market-related violence, crime, insecurity and corruption. This thinking mirrors similar priority shifts that have previously taken place in Europe under the harm reduction banner, with governments taking a pragmatic approach to reduce the harms associated with drug consumption without necessarily seeking to stop the use of drugs. These harm reduction policies and programmes have significantly reduced drug-related harm such as overdose deaths, and HIV and hepatitis C prevalence among people who inject drugs.

Cannabis policy and UN treaties


Another example is the lack of EU engagement in the debate about global cannabis policy developments, the result of the absence of a common EU position on cannabis and huge national policy variations. Demonstrating an ostrich-like denial regarding cannabis policy developments in the Americas but also at local levels within the EU, the EU common position for the UNGASS underscores the need to “maintain a strong and unequivocal commitment to the UN conventions” and that there is “sufficient scope and flexibility within the provisions of the UN Conventions to accommodate a wide range of approaches to drug policy”. In addition, the issue of drug control is a low political priority as the EU currently has it hands full with the refugee crisis and existential threats around the euro and the future of European integration.

A game-changing difference between this UNGASS and the preceding ones is the fact that the position of the US has fundamentally changed. No longer among the hardliners, the US has acknowledged, both at the UN but also more recently domestically, that the over-reliance on incarceration has failed. In August 2013, US Attorney General Eric Holder admitted that mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences were ‘draconian’ and that too many Americans had been imprisoned for too long for no good law enforcement justification. He made it clear that the status quo was unsustainable and damaging. In 2015, President Obama began a process to commute the sentences of around 6,000 federal drug offenders. In early 2016 the congressional task force created to examine overcrowding in the federal prison system, recommended the repeal of federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences. Different legislative initiatives have been tabled, including the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would cut many mandatory minimums for drug offences in half.

The domino effect of cannabis regulation at state level makes the US less sure-footed of condemning other countries for not stringently adhering to a zero-tolerance approach. Cannabis regulation for recreational use is outside of the scope of the current UN treaty framework for drugs, creating a significant problem for the US since it undermines its credibility to continue defending the conventions as they stand. The big question is whether this will lead to the US accepting more flexibility in policy areas that have been explored elsewhere. These include initiatives such as decriminalisation, drug consumption rooms or the regulation of coca in Bolivia, all policy options that the US currently opposes.

UNGASS outcomes: change of course


The past several years have seen significant changes in the global drug policy landscape representing a trend towards more humane and proportional responses based on health, human rights and development principles. To some extent, the UNGASS will acknowledge those advances and thereby consolidate the significant change of course that is happening in various regions of the world. Perhaps the most significant advance will be on the issue of access to controlled medicines – an area that has long been de-prioritised in favour of a focus on repressive, law enforcement-led approaches to reduce the illicit drug trade. Most drugs included in the schedules of the UN conventions also have important medical purposes, and several appear on the WHO “List of Essential Medicines”.  However, the availability of opiate painkillers like morphine for example, has been dramatically low in most developing countries due to overly strict regulations reflecting over-riding concerns about diversion and addiction rather than a need to ensure access to pain relief.

Unfortunately, other areas of progress remain stilted. Russia, alongside several Asian and Middle Eastern countries, has played hardball in the negotiations, effectively putting the brakes on the shifting discourse. The negotiations are driven by consensus, making it unlikely that contested policies in the field of harm reduction, or reforms like decriminalisation, despite being widely accepted and propounded by all relevant UN agencies, will be explicitly recommended in the UNGASS outcome document. Likewise, a clear condemnation of the death penalty for drug offences is probably going to be blocked by a small group of countries. The prophecy that allowing the CND to take full control over the UNGASS preparations would undermine progress towards a more system-wide coherent UN drugs policy seems to be being borne out. Negotiations about the UNGASS outcomes have taken place mostly in ‘informal’ sessions in Vienna, dominated by a minority of member states and from which civil society is excluded from participating or even observing.

For the General Assembly, an obvious priority for this UNGASS would be how to align UN drug policy with the recently adopted new global framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but negotiations in Vienna carry on as if they are negotiating another CND resolution. Submissions from other member states, UN agencies and civil society calling for a recognition of the failure of repressive responses and highlighting the need to connect the drugs issue with the agreed UN priorities for the future of the planet have so far not been reflected in successive drafts of the UNGASS outcome document.  The general tone of these drafts is very much ‘business-as-usual’.

At present, few countries are willing to openly acknowledge the existence of structural deficiencies with regard to UN system-wide coherence, the institutional architecture and the legal treaty framework. No easy solutions are available for reforming the foundations of the global control system and consensus will be hard to find, but a continued denial of the reality of the on-going policy trends and the resulting tensions with the treaty system will not make them disappear. In fact, to do so will hinder the much-needed evolution of the UN drug control system and its ability to adapt to the realities of today. Towards this end, it could be helpful if the UNGASS outcome leads to the convening of an advisory group or an expert panel to think through different scenarios for the future evolution of the system, especially in the lead up to the next important moment in 2019 when member states will have to agree a new global action plan on drugs, hopefully more in line with the broader set of UN priority goals for the next decade.

Although it is clear that the so-called ‘Vienna consensus’ has been breaking apart for some time and there is a growing desire to find viable policy alternatives to repression and punishment, there are still powerful countries and entrenched bureaucracies that are staunchly opposed to any kind of reform. The divisions between member states but also between UN agencies on this issue have become too visible to ignore and the UNGASS is a perfect opportunity for an honest assessment of the performance of the international drug control system and the options for a change of course.

Given the high human cost of the damaging approaches pursued to date, many people around the world have high hopes that governments will not squander this opportunity. And yet, to what extent the UNGASS can really live up to these hopes remains to be seen. The latest dynamics in Vienna do not bode well, as bureaucratic machinations, political complacency and exclusion seem to rule the process. The lack of vision, inclusivity and commitment to finding new solutions to many of the challenges that remain must be strongly condemned, especially given the urgency expressed by those countries that called for this moment in the first place.

This article was written by Ann Fordham of the International Drug Policy Consortium and Martin Jelsma of the Transnational Institute. It 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.

Chronicle AM: LatAm Leaders Call for Drug Decrim, NH House Approves Marijuana Decrim, More... (3/11/16)

Three former Latin American heads of state call for drug decriminalization, the New Hampshire House votes for pot decriminalization, medical marijuana dies in the Utah legislature, but will get a vote in the Pennsylvania legislature, and more. 

Canadian judges are wondering why they're still prosecuting pot possession cases as the wait for the Liberals to legalize it.
Marijuana Policy

Maine Legislative Committee Rejects Marijuana DUID Bill. The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted 7-4 Thursday to reject a bill that sought to set a blood level limit to determine whether a driving is impaired by marijuana use. A majority of committee members voiced concern that setting a legal limit (5 nanograms per milliliter of blood) would not be an accurate measure of impairment.

Michigan Bill Could Kill Legalization Initiative Ballot Push This Year. The Senate Thursday gave fast-track approval a bill seemingly designed to thwart the MiLegalize pot legalization initiative. The bill would close a loophole that would allow initiative campaigns to count signatures gathered outside the 180-day limit, which the initiative campaign had counted on to get sufficient signatures to make the ballot. The bill is expected to win quick passage in the House and then by signed by Gov. Rick Snyder (R). The group has about 250,000 raw signatures, but needs 253,000 valid ones to qualify. It argues that the time limit for signatures can be stretched if it can prove the signatures are still valid, but passage of the bill would make that argument moot.

New Hampshire House Approves Decriminalization Bill (Again)! The House Thursday rejected a negative recommendation from its Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee and passed House Bill 1631 to decriminalize the possession of up to a half ounce of marijuana. This marks the seventh time the House has approved a decrim bill since 2008, but the Senate has failed to pass any of the previous bills. New Hampshire is now the only state in the region that hasn't decriminalized small-time pot possession.

Medical Marijuana

Pennsylvania House to Vote on Medical Marijuana Bill Monday. Ten months after the Senate approved Sen. Mike Folmer's Senate Bill 3, the House will finally vote on it next week.

Utah Legislature Kills CBD Cannabis Oil Bill. First, lawmakers killed an actual medical marijuana, Senate Bill 73, and Thursday, a watered-down substitute, Senate Bill 89 died as lawmakers could not come to agreement on late amendments on the last day of the session. The stage is now set for a medical marijuana initiative drive by patients and supporters frustrated with the legislature's inaction.


Three Latin American Leaders Call for Decriminalizing Drug Use. In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Colombian President  Cesar Gaviria, and former Mexican President Felipe Zedillo have called the war on drugs "an unmitigated disaster" and urged the decriminalization of drug use. They also critique the way global anti-drug bureaucrats have conducted the run-up to next month's UNGASS on Drugs, claiming that key documents have been drafted in a way that is "neither transparent nor inclusive."

Canada Judges Wonder Why They're Still Trying Marijuana Cases. Senior prosecutors told parliamentarians Thursday that some criminal trial judges are questioning why people continue to be prosecuted for simple marijuana possession while the Liberal government moves to legalize the plant. The government is spending $4 million a year pursing small-time pot offenders, and prosecutors said they would continue to enforce the law until it changes. 

Open Letter in Advance of the UNGASS Calls for Obama to Go Bold

With the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs at UN headquarters in New York City just a little more than a month away, more than 230 civil rights, health, faith-based, and other organizations sent a letter to President Obama Thursday urging him to use the UNGASS on Drugs to make an international push for a fundamental shift in drug policy away from criminalization and toward public health and human rights approaches.

UN headquarters, New York City (Creative Commons)
The signatories form a broad range of groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, AIDS United, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the World Hepatitis C Council, as well as dozens of drug reform and harm reduction nonprofits.

The signatories also include NGOs from around the world, from Accion Semilla Bolivia to the Zimbabwe Civil Liberties and Drug Network. As with the domestic sign-ons, the international groups include dozens of drug reform and harm reduction organizations.

All the signatories are united in calling for the US and President Obama to take "a stronger US stance" in areas like human rights, public health, and development and urging the US to promote the initial steps the UN can take in reforming the international drug conventions that form the legal backbone of the global prohibition regime.

The letter urges the administration to call on the UN to appoint an "Expert Advisory Group," whose mandate would be to study tensions faced by the international drug control regime today, and to recommend options for moving forward. Groups argue that the current US stance toward marijuana legalization and international treaties, which relies in part on continued federal prohibition, is "likely to face shrinking credibility internationally as legalization spreads to more states."

"US agencies have played an important role promoting positive reforms like alternatives to incarceration and people-centered public health drug policies," said David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org, who coordinated the sign-on letter. "Unfortunately, the current US UNGASS stance avoids engaging with a number of contested human rights issues, such as the death penalty for nonviolent drug offenses, and punts on the obvious treaty questions that legalization raises. We think this is unfortunate at a time when real strides are being made in reforming our domestic policies, partly because of President Obama's vision for criminal justice reform. We think the administration has viable options available to take further productive steps on global drug policy too."

The letter calls on the Obama administration to:

  • Acknowledge the ramifications of recent drug reforms, such as marijuana legalization in Uruguay and some US states.
  • Stand up for human rights by calling for an end to the death penalty for drug offenses, reducing racial disparities in drug law enforcement, and respecting indigenous traditions.
  • Craft a people-centered approach to drug policy by explicitly adopting harm reduction practices, such as syringe exchanges, and rejecting the criminalization of peasant farmers and the eradication of their drug crops in favor of sustainable development.
  • Take a stronger stance on criminal justice reforms by moving toward drug decriminalization, urging sentencing reforms around the globe, and treating pregnant women who use drugs as patients, not criminals.
  • Work toward a more open dialog by having key documents finalized at the UNGASS rather than at closed sessions of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna and taking a more inclusive posture toward NGOS and civil society.

We will see next month how much Obama is listening.

Chronicle AM: ME Legalizers Sure Over Invalidated Signatures, Civil Society Groups Sign UNGASS Letter, More... (3/10/16)

A South Dakota GOP lawmaker tells the parents of sick kids they should move to another state if they want to use CBD cannabis oil, Maine legalizers are suing over disqualified signatures, the Senate passes a major bill dealing with heroin and opiates, but without funding, and more. 

UNGASS on Drugs is now just five weeks away. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Maine Legalization Initiative Files Lawsuit Over Disqualified Signatures. The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol today filed a lawsuit in Kennebec County Superior Court challenging a decision by the secretary of state to disqualify more than 17,000 voter signatures because of an issue surrounding one notary's signature. That was enough to knock the measure off the fall ballot, but the campaign says the signatures should be counted because the notary's signature does indeed match the one on file and because the secretary of state acted outside his authority in rejecting the petitions. The court has 30 days to rule.

North Dakota Legalization Initiative Approved for Signature Gathering. Secretary of State Al Jaeger Wednesday approved a marijuana legalization initiative for circulation. Organizers now have until July 11 to gather at least 13,452 valid voter signatures. They say they are aiming at 20,000 to have a cushion.

Medical Marijuana

South Dakota House Kills CBD Cannabis Oil Bill. A bill that would have allowed for the use of CBD cannabis oil was killed in the House Wednesday on a 25-43 vote, with one "no" voter suggesting parents who lobbied for it should move to another state. The measure, Senate Bill 171, had already passed the Senate, and Republican Gov. Dennis Daugard had suggested he would sign it. Rep. Kristin Conzet (R-Rapid City) told people suffering seizure disorders they should move elsewhere. "I don’t like the road that we’re going down at this time," she said. "This is not a bill for South Dakota."

Heroin and Opiates

Senate Overwhelmingly Passes Landmark Opioid Bill – the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA). The measure now goes on to the House. CARA advances a large number of treatment and prevention measures intended to reduce prescription opioid and heroin misuse, including evidence-based interventions for the treatment of opioid and heroin addiction and prevention of overdose deaths.

White House Will Announce Funding to Fight Drug Addiction. Just hours after the Senate passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), the Obama administration said it will announce "a significant federal investment" to help fund its goals. Democrats had tried unsuccessfully to add $600 million in funding to the bill, but were blocked by Republicans.

Asset Forfeiture

Florida Poll Finds Strong Support for Ending Civil Asset Forfeiture. A new poll released by Drug Policy Action finds that 84% of registered Florida voters do not think police should be able to seize property from people who have not been convicted of a crime. And two-thirds of those polled said they would be more likely to support a presidential candidate who opposed civil asset forfeiture.  The poll comes as an asset forfeiture reform bill, Senate Bill 1044, passed out of the legislature Wednesday and awaits the signature of Gov. Rick Scott (R).

Drug Testing

West Virginia House Overwhelmingly Approves Welfare Drug Testing Bill. The bill, Senate Bill 6, would mandate drug testing for any welfare applicant who gives state workers "reasonable suspicion" he or she is using drugs, including having a drug conviction in the previous three years. The bill has already been approved by the Senate, but that body will have to take it up again in concurrence since the House added amendments note voted on in the Senate.


Civil Rights, Health, Faith-Based, Justice Reform Groups Call on Obama to Push to End Global Drug War. More than 225 civil rights, health, faith-based and other organizations sent a letterto President Obama Thursday calling on him to use an upcoming United Nations high-level session on global drug policies to push for a fundamental change in course away from criminalization. The letter was submitted as the UN prepares for its highest level session on drug policy since 1998 – the "UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem,"or UNGASS, scheduled for April 19-21 at UN headquarters in New York. US diplomats and drug and crime officials have played a central role in negotiations over the UNGASS Outcome Document, an official product of the meeting that will impact policy.The sign-on campaign for the letter was coordinated by David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org.

Chronicle AM: INCB Rejects Drug War, ME Pot Legalization Init Rejected, More... (3/2/16)

The International Narcotics Control Board takes a surprising stand, Maine's pot legalization initiative hits an unexpected roadblock, Denver NORML files a pot social club initiative, a Florida needle exchange bill heads to the governor's desk, and more.

INCB head Werner Sipp: "The conventions never called for a war on drugs." (incb.org)
Marijuana Policy

Maine Says Legalization Initiative Short on Signatures, Campaign Strongly Disagrees. The secretary of state's office today rejected the legalization initiative from the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, saying it had failed to hand in a sufficient number of valid voter signatures. The group handed in more than 99,000 signatures and only needed 61,000 valid ones to qualify for the November ballot, but the state rejected more than 48,000 signatures, and now the campaign is crying foul. "Based on documents they have provided, it appears that more than 17,000 valid signatures from registered Maine voters were excluded from the count because the signature of a single notary — whose notary commission has not expired — did not exactly match the signature the state has on file for that notary," MPP Maine political director David Boyer said in a written statement. "We are exploring all legal means available to appeal this determination and we sincerely hope that 17,000-plus Maine citizens will not be disenfranchised due to a handwriting technicality."

Mississippi House Rejects Legalization. Offered unexpectedly as an amendment to a drug penalties bill, House Bill 701, a bid to legalize marijuana went down 90-29 Tuesday. Lawmakers said it was the first time in decades, and possibly ever, that the House had voted on marijuana legalization.

New Hampshire Poll Has Strong Support for Legalization. Some 62% of adults polled in a new WMUR Granite State survey favor legalizing marijuana, and 72% of those surveyed said they would approve of selling it in licensed retail outlets.

Denver NORML Files Marijuana Social Club Initiative. The group today submitted an initiative to legalize marijuana consumption clubs and special events. "Denver residents and visitors alike need places other than private homes to legally and responsibly enjoy legal marijuana with other adults," said Jordan Person, executive director of Denver NORML. "This submission to city council is the first step. We’ll get feedback from the city, finalize the language, then start gathering signatures to put it on the ballot," Person said.


Maine Bill to Refelonize Heroin Possession Advances. Last year, legislators voted to make small-time heroin possession a misdemeanor; this year, they are on a path to reverse themselves. On Monday, the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee approved LD 1554, which would let prosecutes charge anyone possessing heroin, meth, or more than 14 grams of cocaine with a felony. The bill is supported by the administration of Gov. Paul Le Page (R).

Harm Reduction

Florida Needle Exchange Bill Heads for Governor's Desk. The House today approved Senate Bill 242, which authorizes the creation of pilot program to establish needle exchange programs in Miami-Dade County.  The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott (R).


INCB Rejects War on Drugs. In its

released today, the International Narcotics Control Board criticized militaristic approaches toward drugs and said excessive punishments of drug users run counter to UN treaties. "As the Board has stated on numerous occasions, the international drug control conventions do not require the incarceration of drug users," wrote the 13 medical and legal experts who make up the board. "The conventions never called for a war on drugs," added INCB President Werner Sipp.

Chronicle AM: "Baby Bou Bou" Wins $3.6 Million Settlement, Pill Testing Battle Looms Down Under, More... (2/29/16)

Justice at last for Baby Bou Bou, Minneapolis decriminalizes, Ohio lawmakers resort to more drug war, Iran executes all the males in a village for drugs, Australian harm reductionists pledge to open a pill testing center at festivals despite government opposition, and more.

"Baby Bou Bou" before and after a Georgia SWAT team raided his home. (Family photos)
Marijuana Policy

North Dakota Legalization Activists Hand In Revised Initiative. Organizers of a marijuana legalization initiative that was earlier rejected by state officials resubmitted their proposal last Friday. The secretary of state now has about one month to review the petition and draft a summary that could be used during the signature gathering process.

Minneapolis Softens Pot Penalties. The city council voted last Friday to reducing small-time pot possession from a misdemeanor to a petty misdemeanor. Petty misdemeanors are not crimes under state law because they are not punishable by jail time. The move is more symbolic than anything, since pot possession is already a petty misdemeanor under state law.

Medical Marijuana

Georgia House Approves CBD Cannabis Oil Expansion, But Still No Legal Source. The House Monday approved House Bill 722, adding seven new conditions to the list of those qualifying to use CBD cannabis oil. But much to the dismay of bill sponsor Rep. Allen Peake (R-Macon), the bill does not allow for cannabis cultivation in the state. To obtain their medicine, patients must thus resort to violating federal law by importing the medicine. The bill now goes to the Senate.

Maryland House Approves Medical Marijuana Expansion Bill. The House last Friday approved House Bill 104, filed by Del. Dan Morhaim (D-Baltimore County). The bill would allow midwives, nurses, podiatrists, and dentists to certify patients for medical marijuana. The bill has no immediate practical implications because there are not yet any dispensaries open in the state. The bill now heads to the Senate.

New Mexico Reveals Names, Addresses of Medical Marijuana Growers, Sellers. The state Health Department has posted on its website the names and addresses of non-profits licensed to grow and sell medical marijuana in the state. The move is in response to a Freedom of Information Act request in a lawsuit brought by a reporter and a public interest group.

Law Enforcement

Family of Infant Injured in Georgia Drug Raid Wins $3.6 Million Settlement. The family of "Baby Bou Bou" Phonesavanh, who was burned by a flash bang grenade during a misbegotten, failed drug raid in Cornelia in May 2014, has been awarded $3.6 million in damages. No police were charged in the raid, which hit the wrong home. The infant's medical bills are estimated at $1 million. The Georgia county where the raid took place refused to pay them.


Ohio Bill to Heighten Punishments for Drug Dealers is Moving. The measure, House Bill 171, would lower the threshold for labeling someone "a major drug offender" from 250 grams of heroin to 100 grams. It passed the House last year and is currently in Senate committee hearings. The Office of the Ohio Public Defender and the ACLU of Ohio are opposing the measure, arguing that is just another criminalizing response to what should be viewed as a public health and safety issue.


Poll Finds Strong Majority of Canadians Support Pot Legalization. A new Globe & Mail poll has support for legalization at 68% nationwide, with majority support (55%) even in the conservative-leaning prairie provinces. Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to legalize it and has called on former Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair to come up with the best model for legalization. The poll found Canadians split on home cultivation, with 49% in favor and 48% opposed.

Iran Executed Every Adult Male on Drug Charges in One Village. Iranian Vice President for Women and Family Affairs Shahindokht Molaverdi told the semi-official Mehr news agency last week that every adult male drug crimes were rampant in some areas, including "a village in Sistan and Baluchistan province where every single man was executed." Molaverdi pointed to the executions as an example of the government failing to deal with drug trafficking in its southern regions and said Tehran needs to better support the families of those executed. "Their children are potential drug traffickers as they would want to seek revenge and provide money for their families,” she said. "There is no support for these people. We believe if we do not support these people, they will be prone to crime."

Australian Festival Pill Testing Battle Heightens. Harm reductionists seeking to reduce deaths and injury among music festival goers are planning an unsanctioned pill testing scheme and will result to civil disobedience if necessary. The New South Wales government today reaffirmed its opposition to the pill testing pilot project, but activists said they will go ahead with a van staffed with toxicologists and shielded from police by barriers of supporters who will risk arrest to protect the testers from prosecution. The project is still months away from being implemented, though. 

Chronicle AM: VT Legalization Bill Heads for Senate Floor, Burma Opium Vigilantes, More... (2/23/16)

Marijuana legalization should get a vote in the Vermont Senate this week, a Utah medical marijuana bill advances, a West Virginia medical marijuana bill is filed, Christian anti-drug vigilantes threaten Burmese opium crops, and more.

Medical marijuana legislation advances in Utah, is introduced in West Virginia. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Vermont Legalization Bill Heads for Senate Floor Vote. The measure, Senate Bill 241, was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee Monday. It has already passed the Senate Judiciary and Finance committees and now heads for a Senate floor vote. If it passes the Senate, it must still get through the House.

Vermont Faith Leaders Express Support for Legalization Bill. In a letter sent today, a diverse group of more than a dozen local clergy and faith leaders from across Vermont said they have "a moral obligation to support change" because the state's current marijuana prohibition laws "have caused more harm than good for the people of Vermont." The marijuana laws are "disproportionately enforced against the poor and people of color," the religious leaders added.

Medical Marijuana

Georgia CBD Cannabis Oil Bill's Cultivation Provision Gutted. The House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee voted Monday to cut a provision allowing for the in-state cultivation of marijuana for CBD cannabis oil production from House Bill 722, which was filed to allow for in-state cultivation. "I can't come before you today without saying how disappointed I am that we're not moving forward with cultivation in this bill," said bill sponsor Rep. Allen Peake (R-Macon). "That was the heart of the bill." Although the state approved CBD cannabis oil last year, there is no way for Georgia patients to legally procure their medicine.

Utah Senate Approves Medical Marijuana Bill. The Senate Monday narrowly approved Senate Bill 73, which would allow patients to use marijuana in edible, extract, and oil form. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mark Madsen (R-Saratoga Springs), overcome opposition from the Mormon Church.

West Virginia Medical Marijuana Bill Filed. A bipartisan group of Senate leaders has introduced a bill that would make medical marijuana legal. The bill, Senate Bill 640, is sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Jeffrey Kessler (D-Glen Dale), Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael (R-Ripley), and three other senators. It has been referred to the Senate Committee on Health and Human Resources. The bill would allow qualifying patients to cultivate up to 12 mature plants and possess up to six ounces. It would also allow state-regulated dispensaries that would supply patients with medical marijuana.

Asset Forfeiture

Oklahoma Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill Killed. A bill to overhaul the state's civil asset forfeiture program has died after the Senate Judiciary Committee failed to include it on its agenda as a Thursday deadline for committee reports looms. Instead, the committee advanced another, less far-reaching asset forfeiture reform bill that would require compensation for attorney fees, court costs and interest on properly determined to be unlawfully seized.


Canadian MP Will Propose Federal 911 Good Samaritan Bill. Liberal MP Ron McKinnon (Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam, BC) says he will introduce a bill granting protection from prosecution for people who call 911 during a drug overdose. The "Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act" was expected to be filed in the House of Commons this week.

Burmese Anti-Drug Vigilantes Face Off With Security Forces, Opium Farmers. As many as 3,000 Christian anti-drug vigilantes are camped at a military roadblock in Kachin state, blocked by security forces from pursuing their goal of destroying poppy production in the area. The group is called Pat Jasan and was set up by local Baptist elders two years to counter the influence of drug traffickers. They claim to have already destroyed up to 3,500 acres of poppy fields at a time when the harvest is in full swing. One vigilante has been killed in violence with farmers, and the military and police are now blocking the vigilantes amid threats of further attacks from farmers. Burma is the world's second largest opium producer.

David Borden -- Remarks at the United Nations, February 10, 2016

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke on the event's opening panel.
Last week then UN held a meeting for NGOs concerned with drug policy -- the "Interactive Institutional Stakeholders Consultation" -- as one of a series of events leading up to this April's "UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem" (UNGASS). The event was not recorded, but the following is approximately what I said during one of the panels. More information on the concepts discussed here can be found at http://stopthedrugwar.org/global.

Thank you. My name is David Borden, and I'm the executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org. We support the calls that have been made for harm reduction and the decriminalization of users, and for people-centered approaches. But it's important to remember that the harm we seek to reduce is not only from drugs, but also from drug policies.

Criminalizing the drug trade drives users into an underground where drugs' quality and potency are uncertain. The high price of street drugs causes life destabilization for addicted users, often in ways beyond the effects of the drugs themselves. The criminalized environment encourages high-risk behaviors such as the sharing of syringes, or resorting to prostitution or becoming homeless because of the financial cost. Illicit drug profits fund transnational criminal organizations, as well as low-level street crime that fuels poverty, social instability and violence.

And so along with pursuing these necessary objectives for drug policy that many of us have talked about – human rights, development, health and security – in fact in order to pursue them more effectively, we urge that this UNGASS consider alternatives to criminalizing the drug trade, and the changes to the drug conventions that can codify such alternatives as legitimate. We likewise urge that the UNGASS consider how nations' obligations under the drug control conventions vs. human rights treaties should be balanced, in cases when those obligations conflict.

We also support a proposal offered by several nations for an UN Expert Advisory Group to assess the tensions in the international drug control regime and present options for moving forward.

New York, NY
United States

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