UNGASS 2016: Towards a new drug policy in the Americas?

˙ Voces

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“If we have applied a prescription based primarily on repression for so long without solving the problem, it’s time to opt for a different treatment.”

                   Juan Manuel Santos, President of Colombia


Last week, members of the United Nations (UN) gathered in New York for the Second Special Session of the General Assembly devoted to the progress of global strategies against drugs, known as UNGASS 2016.  The meeting was not scheduled to take place until 2018, but Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala asked the UN to bring it forward. They believe it urgent to implement changes to existing policies that have proven ineffective and have inflicted grave economic and human costs on these countries.

Despite this effort, the text of international conventions on drug policy will unfortunately remain frozen in a “war on drugs” mentality. Still, thanks to the initiative of Latin American governments, reluctant UN members conceded some flexibility in the application of these norms. The result could lead to a fragmented international regime on drugs that enables the Americas to continue its gradual process of reform towards more balanced and effective policies.

A new environment in the Americas

As some speakers noted during the summit, the three main UN conventions on the issue of drug policy were written or amended in the early 1970s and late 1980s, when the Nixon and Reagan administrations in the US pushed for a global strategy based on the “war on drugs.”  The need to promote the rehabilitation of drug addicts was included in these documents, but the focus was –and still is– on prohibition and repression of drug demand and supply.

Despite this rigid international legal framework, countries in the Americas have implemented important changes on drug policies over the last five years. On the regional level, one of the first signs of the changing tide on drug policy was a 2009 statement by the Latin America Commission on Drugs and Democracy, part of a global effort to rethink prevalent approaches. Co-chaired by former presidents Cardoso of Brazil, Zedillo of Mexico and Gaviria of Colombia, the Commission called the war on drugs “a failure” and urged leaders to launch a paradigm shift away from prohibition and towards prevention and rehabilitation for drug addicts. Four years later, at the request of Colombia, the Organization of American States (OAS) issued a groundbreaking report along similar lines.

Domestically, drug policies have become more flexible and less focused on total prohibition in many countries, whether through judicial decisions, legislative changes or lack of enforcement. For instance, cannabis is now decriminalized in many parts of the hemisphere and this tendency is accelerating: during the summit Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced an initiative to relax restrictions on marihuana possession and the Canadian Minister of Health confirmed that her government will seek to fully legalize this drug in 2017.  

Perhaps most importantly, the United States –the main force behind the implementation of the “war on drugs” in the western hemisphere—is finding it increasingly difficult to defend this repressive stance given the seemingly unstoppable trend toward decriminalization within its own territory. The medicinal use of cannabis is now legal or non-punishable in most US states, and some like Colorado, Washington and Alaska have even legalized its use for recreational purposes.

To be sure, US drug policies in the hemisphere are still heavily tilted towards repression, and the Southern Command of the US military remains in charge of implementing drug policies in Latin America.  But domestic changes and the admission by the Obama administration that the “war on drugs” has been ineffective and in some cases counterproductive –in fact, they have jettisoned the term– represent a historic shift, one that might give Latin American nations the space they need to push for a more flexible international approach.

Demands for reform and international resistance

In this context, during UNGASS 2016 the emerging coalition for reform between countries in Europe and the Americas urged members of the United Nations to change global drug policies on the following lines:

  • The consumption of illicit drugs must be treated as a public health issue more than a law enforcement one. Prohibitionist policies and excessive incarceration have targeted vulnerable groups in society and have done little to reduce drug use or traffic.
  • Government efforts should focus on large-scale organized crime, especially combatting money laundering and weapons trafficking. Alternative penalties to prison should be applied to consumers and petty drug sellers.
  • A comprehensive policy will require a focus on economic and social development to eliminate the root causes of drug trafficking and consumption.
  • The obligation to respect human rights is at least as important as anti-drug conventions. People, their rights and dignity should be at the center of anti-drug efforts. The death penalty should be banned on drug-related offenses, as an intermediate step towards its total elimination.

As in many other issues, the international community is divided on this topic, and no major changes were expected. Efforts to reform drug policies face the staunch resistance of China, Russia, Indonesia and other developing nations, which defend the total ban on drug use and the application of repressive policies for drug-related offenses, including the death penalty. Further, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs and the International Narcotics Control Board –the two main UN bodies responsible for drug control matters– have repeatedly criticized reforms such as the legalization of marihuana in Uruguay and some US states for being in violation of international agreements.

UNGASS 2016 and beyond

Nonetheless, countries seeking to partially abandon policies designed during the “war on drugs” might have obtained an important victory in UNGASS 2016. Even if international conventions have not changed, the final document approved during the summit grants “sufficient flexibility for States parties to design and implement national drug policies according to their priorities and needs,” as well as the need for an “integrated, multidisciplinary, mutually reinforcing, balanced, scientific evidence-based and comprehensive approach” to drug policy.

This might not be the groundbreaking reform some countries were hoping for, but it is an unprecedented recognition of the limits of an exclusively repressive strategy. And it might only be the beginning. The next revision of the international approach to drugs will take place in 2019. Latin American countries have asked the Secretary General of the UN to create a high-level panel to study the results of existing policies and propose changes. No one expects the UN to reform current conventions three years from now, since this would need international consensus. But UNGASS 2016 might be remembered as a moment of unprecedented Latin American leadership on the global scale, and as the recognition of a new era for drug policy in the Americas.