UNGASS: moving forward not backwards on drug policy

This week marks one of those rare occasions when drug policy jumps to the top of the global political agenda. I’m in New York as leaders from around the world come together here to discuss the issue in a special session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGASS).

This kind of high-level gathering hasn’t taken place in 18 years. I feel it’s a good opportunity to hold a frank debate about the international treaties and conventions that have lent legitimacy to the war on drugs – with all its devastating negative impacts on people and communities everywhere.

The war on drugs has really been a war on people, which has needlessly criminalised millions for non-violent offences while perpetuating a vicious cycle of violence and crime that has killed hundreds of thousands. This is especially the case in the Latin American countries, which have been on the frontlines of the global drug trade for decades.

In the US, decades of tough drug law enforcement and draconian sentencing guidelines have been the single most important contributor to a dramatic and untenable explosion of the country’s prison population. While illicit drug use is fairly evenly spread across the population, prosecution has disproportionately targeted minorities – particularly African-Americans, who only represent 12 per cent of the US population, but 38 per cent of those arrested for drug offences. Black Americans are sent to prison for drug offences at 10 times the rate of white Americans.

Given these staggering stats, I wasn’t at all surprised to read about an interview with Richard Nixon’s former domestic affairs advisor John Ehrlichman, who admitted that the US President’s war on drugs primarily served to target the anti-war left and the African-American community. “Getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said in 1994. If Ehrlichman’s confession isn’t  reason to fundamentally rethink drug policy and criminal justice, then I don’t know what is.

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And this form of deliberate harm is certainly not limited to the US. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, more than 800 Crimean drug users, who were enrolled in Ukrainian substitution programmes using methadone or buprenorphine lost access from one day to the next, due to the backward Russian drug laws that declare substitution therapy illegal. According to Michel Kazatchkine – the UN’s Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in that part of the world and a fellow member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy – at least 10 per cent of those drug users have died less than a year after the annexation, mostly from overdoses and suicides.

World leaders should use UNGASS as an opportunity to right the many failings of our global drug policies, and usher in an era of reform that is rooted in evidence and common sense. However, shaped heavily by prohibitionist countries like Egypt and Russia, UNGASS is looking more and more like it will be a political farce that lacks the teeth and will needed to write a new chapter in global drug policy.

A large number of civil society organisation have already stepped forward and criticised the systematic way in which their voices have been excluded from the preparatory process. But instead of allowing disappointment to take over, however, we should applaud and celebrate champions of reform, like the Czech Republic, Mexico, Switzerland, Colombia, Uruguay, Jamaica,  the Netherlands, and Norway for standing up to the drug warriors. I hope that their dissenting voices will be the real news to emerge from New York, together with the thousands that have already stood up and called on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to set the stage “for real reform of global drug control policy.” It’s the only way forward. 

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