Next week, the United Nations General Assembly will meet in special session. The objective, a review of global drug policy. It’s somewhat appropriate and at the same time ironic, that the United Nations' General Assembly Special Session on Drugs will be held from April 19th through the 21st, in that April 20th has become a counterculture, and increasingly in many states a mainstream holiday where people gather to celebrate and consume marijuana.
Over the past decades, the international war on drugs has led to mass incarcerations, public health crises, corruption at both local and national levels of government and violence and deaths fueled by black-market trafficking. In Mexico alone, more than 164,000 deaths occurred between 2007 and 2015 due to the illegal growing and distribution of drugs.
The demand to hold a special session of the General Assembly was made by many world leaders, led by heads of government in Latin America. They called for a new approach to global drug policies. Many advocated that the U.N. end the war on drugs entirely. Other leaders insisted that international drug policy needed to move away from criminalization and prohibition towards criminal justice reform, human rights initiatives and a change in public health policies.
In confirming the need for drug policy reform and indicating that it was a necessity to both legalize and regulate personal drug use, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, stated, “We need to accept that a drug-free world is an illusion.”
Many are optimistic that next week's Special Session on Drugs will lead to reforming the international drug conventions or treaties that have long molded narcotics laws worldwide, but, I’m skeptical.
The quandary for the U.S. government in supporting a change in global drug policy goes back to 1961 when the U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and two subsequent amendments required the 154 countries that ratified it, to "prevent and combat... the evil of drug addiction."
The biggest proponent for the passage of the Single Convention was the United States. It lobbied hard for its passage as a cornerstone of what would become America's war on drugs a decade later.
The Single Convention required all 154 nations who were signatories to "prevent and combat" the evil of drug addiction. It mandated that countries enact "adequate punishment" for the unauthorized cultivation, production or possession of narcotics, including cannabis. The U.S. Controlled Substances Act was then enacted in 1970 to bring the U.S. in compliance to what it agreed to as a signatory of the Single Convention.
Any attempt to legalize a narcotic substance, including cannabis is a violation of the Single Convention. Over the past decades, despite hard-line positions taken by the many countries, including the U.S., Russia, and China, an increasing number of countries have pushed back against the policies required under the Single Convention.
Next week’s U.N. Special Session must be viewed against a backdrop of the legalization of marijuana at the state-level in the United States. Twenty-three states have now legalized medical marijuana, and Pennsylvania will likely soon be joining the list when the recent bill that passed both houses of its legislature is likely signed into law. Four U.S. states have also legalized the adult use of recreational marijuana.
America’s legalization at the state-level has put the U.S. is in an interesting predicament. It makes it impossible for America to argue that it's not in violation of the Single Convention.
How can the U.S. push for a continuation of its failed War on Drugs, while at the same time allowing U.S. states to legalize marijuana? The condoning of the legalization of marijuana at the state-level is forcing the U.S. into a position of reluctantly acquiescing to a change in global drug policy, and to push for treaty reform.
The agenda for next week's Special Session on Drugs was pre-determined in a nonpublic, closed-door meeting in Vienna. It’s likely that next week’s Special Session will rubber stamp the Vienna policy statement, which has minimal effect on global drug policy, or a change in the status of cannabis as a narcotic substance.
There is no mention of cannabis itself in the draft policy statement, although other drugs are mentioned by name, including amphetamines and methamphetamines. What was publicly-announced after the Vienna sessions was that the objective was to "actively promote a society free of drug abuse." This has resulted in a concern that the Special Session would reaffirm the status quo, rather than to seek significant changes to existing conventions and global drug policy. (The full text of the draft resolution is available at http://tinyurl.com/UNspecialsession)
It is possible that the general assembly, meeting at next week’s Special Session, could ask for a new convention on drug trafficking, including exempting cannabis as a narcotic. But, my conclusion is that this is an unlikely outcome, especially with the vehement opposition to a meaningful change in global drug policy led by countries including Russia and China.
If nothing meaningful happens in New York next week at the Special Session, what are the implications for the United States? The U.S. will likely have to admit that the legalization of marijuana by individual states has resulted in the U.S. violating an international treaty. But, one has to question that if this happens, whether it really affects U.S. drug policy or the continuing legalization or decriminalization of marijuana at the state-level.
Maybe it’s fitting then that the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs will take place from April 19 to 21 — just in time to celebrate 4/20.
Author: Jeffrey Friedland
Originally published at www.jeffreyfriedland.com