UNGASS 2016. Sounds like a revolutionary new anti-flatulence drug, but it’s not. It’s the much-anticipated Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the World Drug Problem.
Its very name suggests how ineffectual it will prove to be: there is, in point of fact, no “world drug problem.” It is, rather, a “world war on drugs problem.”
When the issue is incorrectly framed from the start, real solutions are unlikely to follow.
Semantics aside, Mexico along with the other U.N. member nations will be sending its delegation to New York in April, and no other country in the world has a higher stake in the debate, or has been more ravaged by the illegal drug trade.
But don’t expect a reversal in worldwide drug policy from a hopeless and immoral criminal-based system to a sensible and pragmatic public health-based system respectful of human rights.
Countries that have successfully made that transition (Portugal) or have never had a drug war (the Netherlands) or are too financially strapped to have any meaningful drug enforcement policy and therefore rely on benign neglect (Greece), have enjoyed spectacular results compared to strict enforcement jurisdictions: fewer drug users, higher rates of rehabilitation, lower rates of incarceration, lower crime rates, lower rates of HIV infection, and yes, happier law enforcement officials who no longer have to be preoccupied with the Sisyphean and demoralizing task of policing victimless crimes.
But that is simply not what UNGASS is about.
We’ll see a shift in rhetoric at UNGASS this year to be sure. And talk. Lots of talk. But no serious resolutions to be put to a vote. Why? That question can be answered with three words: fear, money and inertia.
The global war on drugs was the brainchild of the United States, ever the trend-setter. But it has never been about drugs. It started with a rage against Chinese opium in 1875, morphed into the fear of cannabis used by Mexican and Sikh immigrants, then evolved into xenophobia involving alcohol favored by those dirty southern Europeans and the drunken Irish (leading to alcohol prohibition).
Later, massaged by the overt racism of Harry J. Anslinger, the drug of choice of African-Americans, cocaine, was banned and cannabis prohibitions strengthened. Much later, another threat to the ruling class – psychedelics ingested by the Nixon-hating hippie counter-culture – were targeted.
There have been many permutations, caveats and nuances since, but it always comes down to the same thing: social and political control of the “other.” The body of literature on this is well documented and unequivocal.
The geopolitical machinations of the U.S. in foisting this hair-brained drug policy upon the world is also well documented and unequivocal. For a half-century the world has had to endure the gavaging of casuistry in the form of anti-drug propaganda, which has now become a part of our collective mental furniture.
Through intimidation or cooptation, the American criminal approach to drug policy became the world’s policy. People are arrested and imprisoned every day for the possession of a plant. Countless others in Mexico are murdered because they trespassed on the black market smuggling route of another.
(In a US $300-billion-plus-per-year unregulated and untaxed industry, with no courts available to adjudicate disputes, one might expect the competition to be somewhat less than gentlemanly.)
Still others paid hundreds of millions of dollars a year to maintain this unwinnable war, whether directly through law enforcement and border interdiction employment, or indirectly through prison jobs, or still even more tangentially by way of anti-drug advocacy groups and think tank positions (just to name a few), fighting to keep the war on drugs alive.
Even more sinister than this, Big Pharma, alcohol producers, police unions and the private prison industry actively lobby the Congress to continue the war on drugs, contribute to political campaigns and generously donate to propaganda groups like The Alliance for a Drug Free America.
Why? Because legal drug and alcohol manufacturers would prefer to avoid competition, and the other interested players are protecting their jobs – it’s really that simple.
Perhaps not surprisingly, major Mexican and other Latin American drug cartels are on the same side with their enemies in law enforcement who ostensibly want to arrest them and destroy their products: neither have any interest in legalizing, regulating and controlling drugs.
The oddest of bedfellows indeed, but one could not exist without the other – an object lesson in pernicious symbiosis.
On the other side of the fence, what exactly does the opposition to this pestilential and insidious war on drugs consist of? Drug addicts in need of treatment, casual drug users not in need of treatment but subject to arrest and imprisonment, and every researcher in all relevant disciplines who have studied drug policy.
This is no exaggeration: every researcher without a dog in the hunt (i.e. isn’t paid by any of the aforementioned interested parties) agrees that the current law enforcement model of drug policy is ass backwards. Which means to say, sadly, that the loyal opposition is the most impuissant player in terms of ability to change policy: no money, no power, and little political influence.
In the battle of ideas, we employ the most ineffectual of weapons in the fight – logic, reason and compassion.
Perhaps the height of both irony and hypocrisy, pharmaceutical companies like the Purdue Pharma cartel have been pushing the prescription of opioids like OxyContin more aggressively than any street-level heroin dealer ever could.
According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report from 2003, Purdue gave doctors 34,000 free coupons for OxyContin prescriptions, in addition to gift bags rivaling those handed out to celebrities at the Oscars. The marketing campaign worked.
Opioid prescriptions went from 76 million in 1991 to 207 million in 2013. Opioid addictions, and overdose deaths, have skyrocketed. When cut off by their doctors after becoming addicted, patients often turn to the cheaper alternative of heroin.
One study concluded that four out of five heroin addicts were addicted to legally prescribed opioids first.
Not surprisingly, the Sackler family (owners of Purdue Pharma), have an estimated net worth of US $14 billion.
Tomorrow: The goal of the last UNGASS, in 1998, was to create a “drug-free world” by 2008.
Glen Olives Thompson is a professor of North American Law at La Salle University in Chihuahua, a specialist in law and public policy and a regular contributor to Mexico News Daily. Some of his other nonacademic work can be viewed at glenolives.com.