Did the U.S. Just Quash a UN Report Calling for Drug Decriminalization?

News & Politics

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) appeared set to call on governments to end the criminalization of drug use and possession, according to DPA Honorary Board Member Richard Branson – but in a dramatic turn of events withdrew its briefing paper under pressure from at least one country, according to the BBC.

The UN document, printed on formal UNODC letterhead with no mention of it being a draft, was apparently released this past Friday with an embargo.  Confidential sources say that when a journalist violated that embargo, the UNODC decided to walk back the report, apparently under pressure from the U.S. government.  

Considering that the American public and leaders such as President Obama are now calling for major drug policy reforms that reduce the role of criminalization in drug policy, it would be remarkable – and some might say, hypocritical – for the U.S. to play an active behind-the-scenes role in suppressing this document.

Yet it’s encouraging that such a powerful statement about the need to decriminalize drug use and possession made it this far in the UN process. Hopefully the UNODC will eventually move forward and release this document, which reflects growing recognition that global drug control policies must reflect not just the punitive provisions of international drug control treaties but also the UN’s health and human rights mandates.

More than 1.5 million drug arrests are made every year in the U.S. – the overwhelming majority for possession only. Roughly two dozen countries, and dozens of U.S. cities and states, have taken steps toward decriminalizing drug use and possession.

In April 2016, the United Nations General Assembly will hold a special session on drugs (UNGASS) – an initiative proposed in 2012 by the then-president of Mexico, Felipe Calderon – to conduct a comprehensive review of the successes and failures of international drug control policy. Whereas the previous UNGASS in 1998 was dominated by rhetorical calls for a “drug-free world” and concluded with unrealistic goals regarding illicit drug production, the forthcoming UNGASS will undoubtedly be shaped by recommendations such as those in the UNODC report.

Political will for a major overhaul of global drug policy has been gaining unprecedented momentum, both in the U.S. and abroad. Distinguished leaders such as Kofi Annan, Paul Volcker and Richard Branson have joined with former presidents of Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Greece, Mexico, Poland and Switzerland and other members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy in calling for an end to the criminalization of people who use drugs.

The leaked UNODC recommendations are consistent with the Global Commission and a surprisingly broad and rapidly-emerging coalition of stakeholders who are calling for drug decriminalization, including the World Health Organization, American Public Health Association, Organization of American States, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, NAACP, Human Rights Watch, American Civil Liberties Union, and National Latino Congreso. In a report published last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) made a clear call for broad drug policy reforms, including decriminalization of drug use, harm reduction practices such as syringe exchange and opioid substitution therapy, and a ban on compulsory treatment for people who use drugs.

Decriminalizing drug possession can provide several major benefits for public safety and health, such as:

§  Significantly reducing the number of people arrested and incarcerated;

§  Increasing uptake into drug treatment;

§  Reducing criminal justice costs and redirecting resources from criminal justice to health systems;

§  Redirecting law enforcement resources to prevent serious and violent crime;

§  Addressing racial disparities in drug law enforcement and sentencing, incarceration and related health outcomes;

§  Minimizing stigma and creating a climate in which people who use drugs are less fearful of seeking and accessing treatment, utilizing harm reduction services and receiving HIV/AIDS services; and

§  Protecting people from the wide-ranging and debilitating consequences of a criminal conviction

In 2001, Portuguese legislators enacted a comprehensive form of decriminalization of low-level possession and consumption of all illicit drugs and reclassified these activities as administrative violations. After more than a decade, Portugal has experienced no major increases in drug use, while seeing reduced rates of problematic and adolescent drug use, fewer people arrested and incarcerated for drugs, reduced incidence of HIV/AIDS, reduced opiate-related deaths, and a significant increase in the number of people receiving drug treatment.

In the U.S., 17 states have reduced or eliminated criminal penalties for personal marijuana possession. Some states, such as California, have recently passed reforms to lessen penalties for possession of other drugs as well.  Sixteen states, as well as Washington, DC and the federal government, now treat personal possession of drugs other than marijuana as a misdemeanor.

U.S. jurisdictions and other countries that have adopted less punitive policies toward drug possession have not experienced any significant increases in drug use, drug-related harm or drug-related crime relative to more punitive countries. In fact, many states that treat possession as a misdemeanor have slightly lower rates of illicit drug use and higher rates of admission to drug treatment than states that consider it a felony.

Getting arrested for drug possession is no small matter – it creates a permanent criminal record, easily available to banks, schools, employers, landlords, and licensing and other government agencies, that can haunt a person for life. Hopefully today’s developments will help accelerate the global trend toward ending the criminalization of drugs.  That certainly would make an enormous difference in the U.S.

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