The UN’s war on drugs is a failure. Is it time for a different approach?

The UN’s war on drugs is a failure. Is it time for a different approach? Or YES!


The year 2008 was momentous. Lehman Brothers collapsed, Radovan Karadžić was arrested, Russian troops massed on the Georgian border, and Barack Obama beat John McCain to the White House.

But 2008 was also significant for something that didn’t happen. It was the year that the world didn’t eliminate the illicit drugs problem. This quixotic goal had been set a decade earlier at a the United Nations when, under the vainglorious slogan “We can do it”, the supranational body pledged that, by 2008, the world would be “drug free”. Now, as the UN prepares to host another special session on drugs in New York this month, the failure of the 1998 assembly to realise the goal is recorded in the vast amounts of money, resources, time and blood that have been expended in pursuing the apparently impossible.

As ‘Ending the War on Drugs’ a new book of essays from some of the leading critics of drugs laws, spells out in chilling detail, pursuing such an ambition has cost taxpayers around the world $100bn (£70.5bn) a year, roughly the same amount spent on foreign aid.

The main beneficiaries of the laws – framed around the 1961 UN single convention on narcotic drugs, which prohibits the production and supply of a number of named substances – are criminal organisations, which have gained control of a global market with a turnover of more than $320bn a year.


Meanwhile, millions of people have been criminalised for non-violent drug offences, leading to more than 1.5 MILLION arrests in the US alone. In countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, executions for drug trafficking have soared. The death toll has reached nightmare proportions. In Mexico, 30 people a day are dying in the battle between drug cartels and government forces. And these are just the obvious deaths. Last month a commission set up by the Lancet medical journal and Johns Hopkins University declared that the drugs laws had not only failed to curb drug use and fuelled violent crime, they had also helped to spread HIV through sharing dirty drugs needles.

By any yardstick, the 1961 convention has been a spectacular failure, one that has had devastating consequences for those caught in the crosshairs of the war on drugs – a war, critics say, that is of the UN’s making.

“Given that the UN was set up to maintain security, it seems more than an oddity that it is running a war out of its own offices,” said Danny Kushlick of the pro-reform campaign group Transform.

Even the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) acknowledges its failure. Its own analysis notes: “Global drug control efforts have had a dramatic unintended consequence: a criminal black market of staggering proportions. Organised crime is a threat to security. Criminal organisations have the power to destabilise society and governments. The illicit drug business is worth billions of dollars a year, part of which is used to corrupt government officials and to poison economies.”

The UN’s war on drugs is a failure. Is it time for a different approach?

It is unsurprising, then, that the many governments and civil society groups pushing for drug law reform are hoping that this year’s UN special session does not repeat the mistakes of the past.

In 2012, Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala called for the special session to be brought forward two years to 2016, citing an urgent and pressing need for reform. In 2011, Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, called for a comprehensive overhaul of drugs laws, highlighting the absurdity of a “one law fits all” policy as countries started to impose unilateral reforms. “I ask myself how you explain marijuana being legalised in California [for medicinal purposes] and cocaine consumption being penalised in Idaho? It’s a contradiction.”

It is not just those countries torn apart by the war on drugs that feel the contradictions. Numerous UN agencies – notably UNAids, UNWomen and UNHCR, the refugee agency – have criticised the promotion of prohibition as articulated through the Vienna-based UNODC and the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs. But hopes that this month’s special session will deliver substantive change look forlorn. The draft outcomes document circulating before the session even begins by confirming that the UN intends to reaffirm its support for prohibition.

This is despite UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon calling for all participating countries “to conduct a wide-ranging and open debate that considers all options.”

But few believe this has happened. “It is supposed to be an open, inclusive process that has considered all the options,” said Ann Fordham of the International Drug Policy Consortium. “But we feel that civil society views have not been adequately reflected in the discussions.”

Yet it would be wrong to see the forthcoming special session as an irrelevance. Rather it offers a chance to compare how much has changed since the last session – if not within the UN, then outside it. “The voices of reform are getting stronger,” Fordham said. “It’s a slow burn. They are saying, you guys can stay in your ivory towers in Vienna or New York and pretend that the world isn’t changing around you, but it is.”

Daniel Wolfe, director of the international harm reduction development programme at the Open Society Foundations, agrees with Fordham’s analysis. For Wolfe, the established UN consensus no longer holds. Too many countries damaged by the war are now challenging the orthodoxy. What is significant now, though, is that incumbent governments, both big and small, are starting to agree. Portugal decriminalised all drugs in 2001, while Switzerland has pioneered the policy of heroin prescription; the US states of Washington and Colorado have legalised the sale of marijuana for recreational purposes. In May 2014, Uruguay unveiled reforms to make it the first country in the world to legalise sales of marijuana. A year later Canada’s newly elected prime minister, Justin Trudeau, announced that possession of marijuana for recreational use would be legalised.

The UN’s war on drugs is a failure. Is it time for a different approach?

The same year the Mexican supreme court concluded that national laws making it illegal personally to produce, possess and consume marijuana violated the rights of Mexicans, paving the way for decriminalisation. There has also been an explosion in harm reduction initiatives at the subnational level. Drug consumption rooms and drug testing laboratories – allowing users to consume or check their narcotics without fear of prosecution – have mushroomed across cities in Canada, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Even the US, one of the most ferocious defenders of the status quo, appears to accept that the game is up. In 2014, in a little noted intervention in the drug control debate, Bill Brownfield, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, observed: “Things have changed since 1961. We must have enough flexibility to allow us to incorporate those changes into our policies … to tolerate different national drug policies, to accept the fact that some countries will have very strict drug approaches, other countries will legalise entire categories of drugs. All these countries must work together in the international community.”Further evidence that the US may be subtly shifting its position came last week when Obama said “For too long we’ve viewed drug addiction through the lens of criminal justice,” the US president said. “The most important thing to do is reduce demand. And the only way to do that is to provide treatment – to see it as a public health problem and not a criminal problem.”

The UN’s war on drugs is a failure. Is it time for a different approach?




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