Landmark UN Session Falling Short of Lofty Goal to End War on Drugs

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Landmark UN Session Falling Short of Lofty Goal to End War on Drugs

One glimmer of hope was Canada's announcement, on Wednesday, that it will introduce a bill to legalize marijuana in 2017

Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto told the UN general assembly on Tuesday: "So far, the solutions [to control drugs and crime] implemented by the international community have been frankly insufficient." (Photo: Reuters)

World leaders are gathered in New York this week for the first United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs in almost two decades, with the lofty goal of ending the failed War on Drugs.

But so far, the summit is falling short in the eyes of drug policy reformers, who say that the "outcome document" ratified on Tuesday maintains a prohibitionist perspective.

"While there are some positive changes in tone and substance compared with similar documents from years past, it recommits countries to achieving the patently unachievable goal of 'eliminating or significantly reducing' illicit drugs by 2019," wrote Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth and Drug Policy Alliance founder Ethan Nadelmann in an op-ed on Tuesday. "Disturbingly, the document refrains from even mentioning the grave harm to health, human rights and security current drug policies cause and from urging any action to address this harm."

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Even United Nations human rights experts, in an open letter to UNGASS, said the text "fails to sufficiently articulate the binding nature of human rights obligations in the context of international drug control and continues to embrace the harmful concept of a 'drug-free world.'"

The letter reads:

As highlighted by the recent 'Study on the impact of the world drug problem on the enjoyment of human rights,' presented by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, policy harms and related barriers to the protection and fulfillment of human rights, such as decriminalization and over-investment in law enforcement, must be reassessed in a meaningful and inclusive way. Any acknowledgement of the need for this vital policy reflection remains absent from the outcome document in its current form.

Diederik Lohman, interim health director for Human Rights Watch, critiqued the document in a series of tweets:

What's more, the process of coming up with the outcome document in the first place was problematic, said Coletta Youngers, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America and an expert on international drug control policy. Watch below:

Still, news from the special session has not been all bad.

In New York on Tuesday, Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto unveiled his support for the legalization of medical marijuana, saying the government would give details of planned actions in coming days. This comes on the heels of a Mexican Supreme Court ruling in November that said individuals have the constitutional right to grow and distribute marijuana for personal use, opening the door to legalization. 

Activists with the "Post-Prohibition Times" (Photo: Drug Policy Alliance)

And on Wednesday morning, Canada's health minister told UNGASS that the government plans to introduce a bill to legalize marijuana in 2017.

A new poll released Wednesday found that more than two-in-three Canadians (68%) say marijuana should be made legal, and roughly the same number (64%) say legalization will do more good than harm in the long run.

But activists attempting to convey how global attitudes toward the drug war are shifting—with increasing awareness that its tactics have been ineffective and counter-productive—were shut down at the entrance to the United Nations on Tuesday. 

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, UN Security was apparently ordered to confiscate copies of the "Post-Prohibition Times" (pdf), a newspaper printout of a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urging him to set the stage "for real reform of global drug control policy," which performers were handing out as attendees entered the building.

"That's an extraordinary and deeply disturbing response by UN officials," said Nadelmann on Tuesday. "The pamphlet obviously presented no threat to security.  All it threatened was the status quo of the global drug war."

The special session ends Thursday. The former presidents of Colombia, Mexico, and Switzerland, along with high-profile members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy plan to hold a press conference in New York Thursday to "evaluate the outcome of the UN meeting and call for concrete steps to ensure more effective drug policy reform in the years ahead." Watch it live-streamed here.

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