In the second of two parts, Glen Olives Thompson offers his take on the drug policy conference called UNGASS. He is not optimistic.
In October of 2015, Richard Branson, a member of the private think tank the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which has been highly critical of current drug policy and favors the regulation and control of drugs over criminalization, leaked a United Nations paper calling for member states to decriminalize all drugs.
The world was abuzz. For a few hours. When some U.N. member states with strict criminal enforcement policies protested, the U.N. quickly backtracked and withdrew the paper, claiming it was written by a “middle-ranking official” who was “offering a professional viewpoint” which was not official U.N. policy.
One might also remember that U.N. treaties governing drug policies haven’t been significantly updated since the 1970s, and the quixotic goal of the last UNGASS in 1998 was to create a “drug-free world” by 2008. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.
Despite a growing call for a reversal of current drug policies from public policy experts, health care professionals, academics, groups such as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and even many member nations in Latin America, including Mexico, the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) is still a staunch old-guard defender of the current failed international drug control regime, and its executive director, Yury Fedotov, is openly critical of drug liberalization laws, including state legalization of cannabis in the U.S.
Indeed, the agency he heads has its head firmly planted in the sand, becoming somewhat of a joke among scholars who study international drug policy.
Partially in response to the incontrovertible fact that worldwide drug use has remained essentially unchanged since 1970 despite the spending of more than US $100 billion per year on drug enforcement, while drugs are both cheaper and more potent than they have ever been in history, a 2013 U.N. World Drug Report (commissioned by UNDOC) stated, “We have to admit that, globally, the demand for drugs has not been substantially reduced and that some challenges exist in the implementation of the drug control system.”
Really? Some challenges? My response in a peer reviewed academic paper published last year was that “[w]ith this statement, the U.N. has brought the art of sugarcoating inconvenient facts to a whole new level.”
Of course the risk for the U.N. old guard is that if international drug control treaties are not significantly reformed to reflect the almost universal consensus that the war is an abject policy failure, member states will simply pull out of international U.N. drug control conventions, as Bolivia did in protest of the ban on coca-leaf chewing.
Politicians, bureaucrats and much of the public at large fear drug liberalization will result in drug proliferation, a fear proven to be unfounded time and time again in various jurisdictions, most notably Portugal and the state of Colorado.
But Portugal and Colorado are nimble entities with roughly the combined population of Mexico City – like F-16 fighter jets that can turn on a dime. The Americas has a population 954 million comprised of some 35 countries with complicated legal and illegal trade mechanisms.
Like a Boing 747, its inertia is great and it cannot turn easily. The sticky tentacles of the drug enforcement juggernaut, with all its economically dependent corollaries, are entwined throughout the system at every level, and supported by business and government interests that benefit from the continued drug war.
To be sure, world public opinion is changing with respect to drug decriminalization (ironically yet perhaps appropriately led by the United States), but sea changes in opinion don’t happen overnight, and when they are finally cemented in societies’ collective psyche, policy implementations often lag far behind.
So expect many things from UNGASS: high drama, vituperative protesters, debates by all manner of punditry, impassioned speeches, the softening of drug war rhetoric, the praise of needed reforms and transition from a criminal enforcement paradigm to one based on public health and human rights.
You’ll even find intellectually honest experts trying to do the right thing – speaking truth to power.
But don’t expect any significant policy shift. The vested interests in current international drug control protocols will employ whatever mendacity and legerdemain necessary to keep the current system in place.
UNGASS at this stage is at best little more than an international focus group or debating society, and at worst, a political theatrical production. Real change will only occur when paying audience members – the U.N. member nations – realize how truly bad the acting is, and walk out of the theater.
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.