Will the US Start to Use Its Power Over World Drug Laws for Good?

The following article first appeared on Substance.com

As the richest, most powerful country in the world, the US has for decades zealously overseen global drug prohibition. But in the era of legal marijuana in Colorado, Washington state—almost even Washington, DC—how tenable is that position?

Mike Trace—whose lengthy CV includes current chairman of the International Drug Policy Consortium, former deputy UK drug czar and a spell at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna—is well equipped to tackle such questions. After attending the UN in New York yesterday for an event concerning UNGASS 2016, he was invited by P2PH to give a speech about America’s changing international role.

There’s a sense of America’s need to “do penance,” he began, for leading the world down the path of prohibition. “They got us into this mess—what are they going to do to get us out of it?”

Experience and science, he continued, show that “the vast majority of drug use is not harmful,” and that “most people who use drugs are not a threat to anyone, certainly not to society.” Rather, he said, the settings and legal consequences of drug use—as dictated by policy—cause the majority of drug-related harms. The US has long been one of the world’s “main harm reduction resistors.”

There are grounds for optimism. The US, Trace noted, spends by far the most money on drug issues and has immense diplomatic clout, international networks and expertise at its disposal. So a change of tack would have a correspondingly big worldwide impact.

The trouble is, the US drug war machine has the turning circle of an oil tanker. Trace is “pessimistic about the speak of cultural change within US government institutions.” In particular, the DEA, he said, is “a massive, expensive agency—a redundant agency—that really needs to get smaller.”

“Bless ‘em,” he said of DEA officials. “If you talk to them, they have no idea of the drug policy debates going on.”

Slowly, though, change is happening. Recent noises from the US Office of National Drug Control Policy pay lip-service, at least, to a progressive approach (“I keep looking for the word ‘mistake’ in these speeches…” said Trace).

But we mustn’t forget, Trace urged, America’s “Number One issue: the hundreds of thousands of people who are going to sleep in a prison tonight” for nonviolent drug offenses. The US has begun telling the world that incarceration isn’t the best way to deal with drug problems—while continuing to incarcerate more people for drug-related reasons than anyone else.

In the wake of Washington and Colorado, US diplomats, usually so assertive, Trace said, have been reluctant to draw attention to an awkward new reality: “The US role in these discussions now is keeping its head down—not natural territory!” Instead, they’ve been engaging in some quiet “intellectual gymnastics” to explain why their country still isn’t, in fact, breaking the international treaties that maintain drug prohibition: arguing that the US federal government isn’t in breach, or that get-out clauses provide for exceptions based on constitutional necessities.

White House sources Trace has spoken with claim there is “no problem” with drug policy reform there: The White House “just wants to know it’s going with the curve, rather than risking being ahead of the curve.”

Still, we shouldn’t expect global prohibition just to vanish. A lot of powerful interests are examining the current momentum of the movement for change, Trace said, in order to identify “a stopping point—the next equilibrium.” Blocs of countries with growing diplomatic influence, he added, including China and Russia, “will not allow any liberalization of the drug treaties.”

In which case, national drug-law changes are more likely to be justified by flexible re-interpretations of the current international treaties—based on those highly open-to-interpretation constitutional and public health-based opt-outs. Uruguay has taken this path, and other Latin American countries, already engaged in high-level drug policy debates based on their desire to reduce violence, are likely to follow.

As soon as domestic US politics allow leaders to conclude, confidently, that the War on Drugs is no longer a vote-winner, said Trace, US power will begin transforming the international scene more rapidly.

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