It’s been almost 20 years since the United Nations conducted a review of global drug policies, and the process kicks off again Thursday. This time, 100 organizations have signed a letter requesting the intergovernmental body to let countries legalize marijuana without being accused of violating treaty provisions.
The coalition includes major groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch.
While the UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs does not officially convene until April of 2016, Thursday’s meeting in New York marks the first of many more leading up to the event. The results of the session could frame future drug policy debates for years.
In 1998, the UN thought it could achieve a drug-free world. As far as marijuana is concerned in the United States, that goal appears to be gradually slipping away, since four states and the District of Columbia have legalized the drug. Medical marijuana is also spreading rapidly.
Interestingly, the Obama administration has refrained from interfering with the ability of states to legalize or decriminalize marijuana, but when it comes to the international scene, the story shifts. Washington actively opposes treaty reform, since it holds that differing domestic drug policies can already function under existing international frameworks.
However, advocates in the coalition seem intent on clearing the air by broaching the subject of treaty reform, given several warnings from the UN’s drug enforcement body that policy experimentation might violate treaties.
In November of 2014, the UN’s top drug czar, Yury Fedotov, stated that the legalization of marijuana by states in the U.S. is a serious international drug treaty violation.
Above all, the coalition believes that human rights should come prior to heavy-handed enforcement.
“The US has taken a rather confused position: the legalization of marijuana in several states, and shifts in public opinion, as well as the Obama administration’s own interest in drug reform, have led the US to change its public stance on drug policy,” Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno, co-director of the US Program for Human Rights Watch, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “But they are simultaneously arguing for keeping the conventions unchanged–even though it’s clear that many alternatives would violate the conventions.”
For Sanchez-Moreno, the coalition is trying to emphasize the real costs of drug prohibition on human rights, and the unintended consequences created by an enforcement regime. This includes extrajudicial executions in Thailand and the death penalty in Indonesia, as well as the fueling of criminal organizations that take advantage of high profits to subvert democracy, increase corruption and commit atrocities.
“Our main goal is to get countries to rethink global drug policy, to take into account the very serious costs to human rights that current approaches entail, and to explore alternative approaches, including by allowing countries to experiment with other ways of regulating drug use, possession, production, and distribution that do not involve use of the criminal law,” Sanchez-Moreno said.
Kevin Sabet, a noted advisor to three presidential administrations and president and CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, thinks that when cutting through the language on human rights used in the letter, “it’s important to understand that all of these groups have the goal of legalizing drugs – most of them want methamphetamine, heroin, and cocaine legal both in the US and in the rest of the world. And not only is that against the international drug conventions and basic principles of public health, there is exactly zero desire to do that in any country.”
“That said, there is room for major improvement in global drug policies,” Sabet told TheDCNF. “Some countries still don’t want to believe the data that treatment – especially medication-assisted therapies – can work. Some places still insist on using the death penalty for drug trafficking offenses, and others just ignore the problem completely.”
According to Sabet, existing UN conventions provide ample flexibility for countries to experiment with policy, meaning that “if legalization groups have problems with global drug policy, their grievances shouldn’t be with the UN, but rather with those specific individual countries.”
Aside from what happens on the international level, the fact remains that the United Nations is largely impotent in punishing countries which diverge from drug treaties.
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