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US Should Seek Bold New Approach on Drugs

Protesters hold a candlelight vigil and a march calling for the end of the drug war on September 6, 2012 in New York City. Mexicans who have lost loved ones in their country's drug war joined with American supporters as part of the Caravan for Peace with Justice and traveled some 6,000 miles through 25 cities, including Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta and Chicago before arriving to New York. They protested the continued war on drugs on both sides of the U.S.- Mexico border, which has left tens of thousands of people dead. The caravan is due to arrive in Washington D.C. for its final stop September 10. (Photo: John Moore)

The “War on Drugs” has been lost. Not only has it failed to reduce problematic drug use, it has cost more than a trillion dollars over the past few decades, and produced horrific unintended consequences. It has left in its wake a trail of violence, human rights abuse, and infectious disease.

The United States is at the forefront of countries that bear responsibility for this state of affairs. For more than 50 years, its leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, have pursued harsh and often abusive drug control policies domestically, an approach they then sought to have adopted by the rest of the world.

World leaders meet from April 19 to 21 in a rare special session of the UN General Assembly — the first since 1998 — to discuss the global response to drugs. The meeting was instigated by the leaders of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, who, citing the terrible consequences of the War on Drugs for their countries, said that “revising the approach on drugs...can no longer be postponed.”

As the chief architect of the global approach to drugs, the United States has a unique opportunity to acknowledge the disastrous legacy of the policies it advocated and to provide leadership in trying to come up with a new approach to drugs. Such an approach should reduce the harm drugs can cause without perpetrating widespread human rights abuse and violence.

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The U.S. government has so far failed to seize that opportunity. At a time when all options should be on the table to resolve an urgent crisis, the U.S. has opted to think small. In the negotiations preceding this week’s meeting, it has pursued what U.S. chief negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield, has called a “pragmatic reform agenda” — code for seeking uncontroversial middle ground in a polarized debate.


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In line with this low-ambition agenda, neither President Barack Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to attend the meeting. To be sure, the new reform agenda represents progress over past administrations’ policies but still falls far short given the urgent need for major reform.

To its credit, the Obama administration has allowed experimentation domestically with new drug control models — most notably regulation of cannabis in Colorado, Washington and other states. But the administration has resisted encouraging similar experiments outside the United States. The U.S. initially proposed a “Brownfield Doctrine” that emphasized a flexible interpretation of the UN drug control conventions — and seemed to suggest U.S. openness to countries experimenting with alternatives to criminalization. But Brownfield then disingenuously mischaracterized the agenda of drug policy reformers, saying they “espouse complete legalization, arguing that if only we would legalize the product, all of these problems would immediately disappear.”

"At a time when all options should be on the table to resolve an urgent crisis, the U.S. has opted to think small."

The administration has made some positive contributions to the negotiations, notably by advocating greater emphasis on health-centered drug policies and alternatives to incarceration for people who use drugs. But the urgency of today’s situation calls for bolder steps than just tinkering with the margins of the “War on Drugs.”

World leaders at this UN special session are expected to adopt a pre-negotiated outcome document that mirrors the U.S. ambition level and that lacks any sense of urgency for reform. It represents little more than a continuation of the current failed approach. 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. 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.

Repeating the mistakes of the past will not improve the future. A new global approach is urgently needed, one that reduces both the harm caused by of drugs and the harm caused by current drug control policies. We need to decriminalize drug use and possession and ensure that people who use drugs have access to good health services. We need to encourage different models for regulating cannabis. And we need, more broadly, to reduce the role of criminalization and criminal justice to the extent truly required to protect health and safety.

The Obama administration has made significant progress these past two years in reforming drug policies at home. It should do the same internationally as well.

Kenneth Roth

Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch. Before joining Human Rights Watch, he was a federal prosecutor in New York and Washington. Follow him on Twitter: @KenRoth

Ethan Nadelmann

Ethan Nadelmann founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

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