Drugs

The Top 10 International Drug Policy Stories of 2016

There was a lot of good drug reform news last year, but also some really ugly stuff.

The year that just ended saw a serious outbreak of bloody violence against drug users and sellers in one country; drug offenders hanged by the hundreds in another; efforts to fight the spread of drug-related HIV/AIDS falter for lack of funding; and the tenacity of the prohibitionist apparatus in the halls of the United Nations. But there was also good news emanating from various corners of the world, including advances in marijuana legalization in Canada, the U.S. and Europe and the flouting of the proscription against the coca trade in the U.N. anti-drug treaties. And speaking of treaties, alhough we didn't include it this year because the drug policy implications remain unclear, the fruition of years'-long peace negotiations between Colombia and the leftist rebels of FARC, bringing an end to the Western hemisphere's longest-running guerrilla war, is certainly worth noting. 

Here are the 10 most notable international drug policy events of 2016, the good, the bad and the ugly.

1. The U.N. General Assembly Special Session on DrugsTakes Place. The global prohibitionist consenus was under growing strain at the UNGASS on Drugs, as civil society pressed the U.N. bureaucracy and member states for reforms as never before. But change comes at a glacial pace at the level of global diplomacy, and the vision of UNGASS as a platform for discussing fundamental issues and plotting a new course ran up against the resistance of drug war hardliners like Russia and China, and the studied indifference of European governments, which preferred that the U.N. drug policy center of gravity remain at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna.

While the U.S. delegation advocated for some good stances, it opposed any meddling with the trio of U.N. conventions that form the legal backbone of global drug prohibition. Still, there were some incremental victories. U.N. agencies submitted their own position papers, many highly progressive, as were the submissions from some countries and international organizations. EU states and others fought hard for language opposing the death penalty for drug offenses, though unsuccessfully. And while the UNGASS Outcome Document avoids most big issues, it puts strong emphasis on treatment and alternatives to incarceration. It acknowledges the importance of human rights and proportionate sentencing; has support for naloxone (the overdose antidote), medication-assisted treatment (e.g. methadone and buprenorphine) and safe injecting equipment (though avoids the term "harm reduction"); and calls for addressing obstacles to opioid availability.

2. Global Harm Reduction for AIDS Remains Tragically Underfunded.  Despite the repeatedly proven positive impact of harm reduction measures in reducing the spread and prevalence of HIV/AIDS, donors continue to refuse to pony up to pay for such measures. The UNAIDS program estimates that $2.3 billion was needed to fund AIDS-related harm reduction programs last year, but only $160 million was actually invested by donors as most member states cut their aid levels. That's only 7% of the requested funding level. That's after 2015 saw reductions in funding for AIDS efforts in low- and middle-income countries. The world spends an estimated $100 billion a year fighting drugs, but can't come up with 2.3% of that figure to fight drug-related AIDS harms.

3. America's Most Populous State Legalizes Marijuana, and So Do Several More. You know the global prohibitionist consensus is crumbling when the rot sets in at home, and that's what happened in November's U.S. elections. California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts all voted to legalize marijuana, joining Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, which led the way in 2012 and 2014. Now, some 50 million Americans live in pot-legal states, and that's going to mean increasing pressure on the government in Washington to end federal pot prohibition. 

4. Europe's Prohibitionist Consensus on Pot Begins Crumbling Around the Edges. No European nation has legalized marijuana, but signs are increasing that somebody is going to do it soon. If 2016 was any indication, the best candidates may be Italy, where a broadly supported legalization bill got a parliamentary hearing this year before surprise election results upset the country's political apple cart; Germany, where "legalization is in the air" as Berlin moves toward allowing cannabis coffee shops and Dusseldorf moves toward total marijuana legalization; and Denmark, where Copenhagen is trying yet again to legalize weed. In Denmark and Germany, legalization isn't currently favored by the central governments, while in Italy, legalization is in limbo after Europe's populist uprising swept the prime minister out of office. Still, the pressure is mounting in Europe.

5. The Dutch Are Finally Going to Do Something About the 'Back Door Problem.' The Dutch have allowed for the sale of marijuana at "coffee shops" since the 1980s, but never made any provision for a legal pot supply for retailers. Now, after 20 years of blocking any effort to decriminalize marijuana production, Prime Minister Mark Rutte's VVD party has had a change of heart. At a party conference in November, the VVD voted to support "smart regulation" of marijuana and "to redesign the entire domain surrounding soft drugs." The full text of the resolution, supported by 81% of party members, reads: "While the sale of cannabis is tolerated at the front door, stock acquisition is now illegal. The VVD wants to end this strange situation and regulate the policy on soft drugs in a smarter way. It's time to redesign the entire domain surrounding soft drugs. This redevelopment can only take place on a national level. Municipalities should stop experiments with cannabis cultivation as soon as possible." The opposition political parties are already in support of solving the long-lived "back door problem."

6. Canada's Move Toward Marijuana Legalization Continues Apace.Justin Trudeau and the Liberals swept the Tories out of power in October 2015 with a platform that included a clearcut call for marijuana legalization. Movement toward that goal has been slow but steady, with the task force charged with clearing the way calling for wide-ranging legalization in a report report issued in December. The Liberals say they expect to file legalization bills in the parliament this spring, and Canada remains on track to free the weed.

7. Bolivia Ignores U.N. Drug Treaty, Agrees to Export Coca to Ecuador. Bolivian President Evo Morales, a former coca grower union leader himself, opened the year campaigning to decriminalize the coca trade and closed it without waiting for the U.N. to act by inking an agreement with Ecuador to export coca there. The agreement would appear to violate the U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which bans the export of coca leaf because it contains the cocaine alkaloid, but neither Bolivia nor Ecuador seem to care.

8. Mexico Marks a Decade of Brutal Drug Wars. In December 2006, President Felipe Calderon sent the Mexican army into the state of Michoacan in what he said was a bid to get serious about fighting the drug trade. It didn't work, and led to the worst prohibition-related violence in the country's history, with an estimated 100,000-plus killed and tens of thousands more gone missing. Attention to the cartel wars peaked in 2012, which was a presidential election year in both the U.S. and Mexico, and the level of killing declined after that, but has now risen back to those levels. Calderon's replacement, Enrique Pena Nieto, has publicly deemphasized the drug war, but has not substantially shifted the policy. The arrest of Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman has weakened his cartel, but that has only led to more violence as new competitors vie for supremacy.

9. Iran Has Second Thoughts About the Death Penalty for Drugs. The Islamic Republic is perhaps the world's leading drug executioner, with drug offenders accounting for the vast majority of the over 1000 people it executed in 2015 (2016 numbers aren't in yet). There are increasing signs the regime is set to change course, however. In November, the parliament agreed to expedite deliberations on a measure that would dramatically limit the number of people facing execution for drugs. Now, the proposal will get top priority in the Legal and Social Affairs Committee before heading to the full parliament. The measure would limit the death penalty to "organized drug lords," "armed trafficking," "repeat offenders," and "bulk drug distributors."

10. The Philippines Wages a Bloody War on Drug Users and Sellers. With the election of Rodrigo Duterte, the country descended into a veritable bloodbath, as police and vigilantes seemingly competed to see who could kill more drug users faster. President Duterte has brushed off criticism from the U.S., the U.N. and human rights groups, and even insulted his critics, although he did have kind words to say about Donald Trump, who had kind words to say about him. As of year's end, the death toll was around 6,000, with the vigilantes claiming a slight lead over the cops.  

Phillip Smith is editor of the AlterNet Drug Reporter and author of the Drug War Chronicle.

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