Amanda Voisard / UN Photo

The UN’s prohibitionism impedes drug policy reform

Evidence-based practices on narcotics use are being undermined by a five-decade-old international convention

March 17, 2015 2:00AM ET

The fate of the global war on drugs remained uncertain today as delegates from 53 nations and representatives from dozens of civic and nongovernmental organizations concluded the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs’ annual meeting in Vienna.

The nine-day session opened against the backdrop of a shifting dialogue on the issue of drug use and abuse. It also offered a window into the challenges ahead for the 2016 U.N. General Assembly, which will convene its first special session on drugs since 1998. The U.N. hopes to reconcile mounting calls for drug policy reform with a treaty regime that was established more than five decades ago to promote a doctrine of zero tolerance.

A balanced approach

The General Assembly presents its existing policy on drug abuse as a balanced program. In opening remarks last week, the executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Yury Fedotov, said its goal is to “protect the health of people … ensure access to treatment services and essential medicines, promote fundamental human rights, build viable alternative livelihoods and stop criminals from exploiting the vulnerable.”

In many instances, the agencies and subcommittees tasked with carrying out those efforts have done so diligently and conscientiously. The commission’s meeting featured several draft proposals around reducing harm, ensuring adequate access to palliative care and keeping low-level drug offenders out of the criminal justice system.

These are noble goals. But they remain shackled to an inflexible policy of prohibition and threatened by treaty directives that sometimes seem contradictory, ambiguous or even in conflict with other U.N. charters.

The commission’s conflicting positions on harm reduction strategies such as needle exchanges and safe injection facilities is a case in point. The UNODC has been gradually increasing its support for harm reduction since 2004 to meet the demand reduction principles adopted by the 1998 General Assembly. However, the quasi-judicial International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), which oversees the implementation of the U.N. drug conventions, has criticized many harm reduction strategies, saying they promote drug use and therefore violate U.N. conventions.

Similarly, the goal of providing access to pain medications to those who need them often conflicts with policy programs aimed at limiting diversion. The INCB’s own annual survey shows that an estimated 75 percent of the world’s people — roughly 5.5 billion individuals — are denied access to pain medication because of a variety of factors, including overly restrictive policies.

The INCB has no enforcement authority, but it often lectures member states on the legal ramifications of reforms to drug policy it considers too progressive.

“One of the most fundamental principles underpinning the international drug control framework … is the limitation of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances to medical and scientific purposes,” warns (PDF) the INCB’s 2014 annual report. “This legal obligation is absolute and leaves no room to interpretation.”

The unrelenting effort to prohibit drug use has been infinitely more harmful than drug use itself.

Its steadfast resistance to decriminalization has put the INCB at odds with some member states that have been gradually easing their restrictive drug policies. For example, when Portugal liberalized its drug laws in 2001, then–INCB Deputy Head Akira Fujino expressed “deep concern” over what he saw as “a clear trend in Western Europe to decriminalize use and possession of narcotics and to view addicts as patients.”

More recently, INCB officials have questioned the medical efficacy of smoked marijuana and chastised Uruguay and the U.S. states of Colorado and Washington for lifting their prohibitions on recreational pot.

While it may appear that the INCB is intentionally disrupting organic reforms, for the most part, the agency is simply promoting a conservative interpretation of established U.N. drug policies. The real impediment to reform resides in the legal constraints of the U.N. conventions, which tend to prohibit signatories from adapting to new evidence-based realities.

Born in enforcement era

International drug control efforts continue to shaped by the environment in which the U.N. policies were formulated and the political forces that influenced their development. For the past half century, nearly every escalation in the global war on illicit drugs has been reactionary in nature and initiated almost exclusively under U.S. guidance.

In 1961, when the original 73 delegates to the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs met in New York to create a global framework for tackling narcotic abuse, there was no such thing as a science of addiction. Formalized methadone treatment for opioid dependency was still three years away. Drug abuse was almost universally viewed as a moral issue, and addicts were still subject to civil commitment in a number of U.S. states.

One of the primary architects of the U.N. convention and a longtime head of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger, relied on overt racism to galvanize support for his war on marijuana. He convinced the delegates to add cannabis to the convention as a Schedule I drug, criminalizing pot worldwide for the first time in history.

The U.N. ratified another drug treaty in 1971, targeting psychotropic substances. Across United States, LSD-enlightened hippies were busy burning bras and draft cards, and thousands of soldiers were returning to the U.S. from Vietnam strung out on heroin. This was also the year President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “America’s public enemy No. 1” in a speech that paved the way for the United States’ domestic war on drugs. The final prong on the trident of U.N. drug policy came in 1988, at the height of the crack epidemic. It focused on illicit trafficking and the criminalization of drug possession for personal use.

Unintended consequences

It’s hard to underestimate the negative effects of these policies. In its February report on the casualties of war on drugs (PDF), Health Poverty Action — a British nongovernmental organization dedicated to health care access in developing countries — put zero-tolerance drug prohibition policies on par with climate change, unfair trade practices and tax dodging for its detrimental effect on the world’s poor and marginalized communities. The group estimated that enforcing anti-drug policies costs at least $100 billion a year — rivaling the $130 billion spent annually in global aid.

Another study from the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction found that when commonly used illicit substances become scarce or overpriced, enterprising dealers rapidly fill the void with newer synthetic substances. The full pharmacological effects of these substances remain largely unknown. Some are likely innocuous imitations; others such as the bad batches of MDMA that led to a spate of deaths in the U.S., Britain and Canada last year are dangerous derivatives created by bathtub chemists improvising around international restrictions on precursor chemicals needed to make the real thing. To say that coordinated international efforts to curb MDMA distribution were indirectly responsible for those deaths would not be an exaggeration.

The U.N. commission on drugs insists that the ultimate goal of its prohibitionist drug policy is to ensure “the mental and physical health and welfare of humankind.” Yet the unrelenting effort to prohibit drug use has been infinitely more harmful than drug use itself.

Drug addicts and users will always seek out mind-altering substances. And there will always be someone willing to supply them. The majority of people who use drugs do so occasionally and suffer no negative consequences from their use. But some will sacrifice their mental and physical health and welfare for the luxury of getting stoned. A compassionate, civilized society should provide them with help and other services when they need it. Beyond the moral argument, the price of giving addicts a cushion to land on when they hit bottom is far less costly than trying to prevent them from getting high in the first place.

It has been 27 years since the last major reform to the U.N. conventions on drug abuse, which strengthened an already stringent prohibitionist regime. When it meets again next year, the U.N. General Assembly should work toward giving nations the legal wiggle room necessary to loosen their grip.

Christopher Moraff is a freelance writer who covers policing, criminal justice policy and civil liberties for Al Jazeera America and other media outlets. He was recognized in 2014 with an H.F. Guggenheim reporting fellowship at John Jay College

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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