On the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York City on Sept. 24, U.S. President Donald Trump unveiled a “Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem,” which was adopted by 130 nations.
The document states that signing nations “reaffirm our commitment” to implement the relevant U.N. treaties — most prominently, the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which created a unified system for enforcement of restrictions and prohibitions on controlled substances. This of course includes cannabis, although much of the event’s media coverage emphasized the opioid crisis.
“Illicit drugs are linked to organized crime, illegal financial flows, corruption and terrorism,” Trump said in his remarks at the unveiling. “It’s vital for public health and national security that we fight drug addiction and stop all forms of trafficking and smuggling that provide the financial lifeblood for vicious transnational cartels. In the United States, we’re taking aggressive action — securing our borders, supporting law enforcement, devoting record funding to the opioid crisis, and promoting treatment and recovery.”
“If we take these steps together, we can save the lives of countless people in all corners of the world,” he added.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres echoed Trump’s call for a renewed global crackdown on trafficking. “That means denying safe haven to drug traffickers and better cross-border cooperation to pursue kingpins and dismantle networks,” he said.
Lines Drawn Between Hardline and Dissenting Nations
The document was not drafted through the U.N.’s usual multilateral process, but submitted in its complete and final form by the United States, with the wording presented as non-negotiable. So there was, inevitably, dissent: 63 U.N. member nations did not sign on, including significant U.S. allies such as Germany, Norway and Spain.
But as InSight Crime notes, many of the dissenting nations are in Latin America and the Caribbean, among the world’s regions most impacted by the global drug war. Declining to sign was the South American giant Brazil, joined by Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, El Salvador, Cuba and Jamaica.
The key U.S. partners in the global call are tellingly ominous. Early on, the United States enlisted Russia and the Philippines as “co-hosts” of the initiative. Russia, and especially its southern republic of Chechnya, have launched a harsh crackdown on illegal drugs — prominently including cannabis — that has been decried by international human rights organizations. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte’s draconian “drug war” has resulted in more than 8,000 extrajudicial killings of suspects by the police and paramilitaries, according to international rights monitors. Earlier this year, opposition lawmakers in the Philippines released figures indicating that the death toll may now be up to 20,000.
Also signing on the global call are China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Singapore — four nations that were criticized by Amnesty International earlier this year for carrying out executions of drug suspects. China, which annually executes more people than the rest of the world combined, has been lately stepping up executions of drug convicts — including for cannabis possession.
Analyst Phillip Smith of the Independent Media Institute, writing on AlterNet, states that the global call displays the kind of “eliminationist” language on illegal drug cultivation that many countries, especially in Latin America, have been moving away from. The strategy outlined in Trump’s document seeks to “reduce” drug demand, but “cut off the supply” of drugs by “stopping” their production. This invokes the eradication campaigns that continue to spark peasant protests in Colombia — and have been plagued by attendant human rights abuses. The phrase “human rights” does not appear in the document.
NAFTA Partners Sign On to Drug Crackdown
As Toronto’s Globe & Mail notes, both Canada and Mexico signed on to the statement, despite the fact that Canada is now on a two-week countdown to cannabis legalization and Mexico’s incoming president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has also broached the idea.
Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark — who now sits on a dissident-minded Global Commission on Drug Policy — said she believed that Canada and Mexico likely signed under the pressure of the current NAFTA re-negotiation with the US.
“It’s giving in to bullying and extortion and it’s outrageous,” she said. “I suspect that many countries have come under great pressure to sign for a range of reasons — they may, for example, be involved in delicate negotiations with the U.S. at the present time.”
A Swiss member of the Global Commission, Maria Cattaui, also noted that many of the governments that signed on are themselves considering a transition to a regulated legal market, at least for cannabis. “It’s clear that a good third of the signatories have already moved along the path [to regulation] — they’re being hypocritical and sucking up to Trump,” she said. “It’s pathetic and painful.”
Alex Lawrence, spokesman for Canada’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told the Globe & Mail that Canada signed the Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem because Canada “remains a strong supporter of the international drug-control framework and will continue working with our international partners to advance the objectives of the U.N. drug conventions.”
Lawrence said, “The legalization of cannabis does not change our commitment to meeting the overarching goal of these conventions — protecting the health and safety of people.”
Cannabis Contradictions at the United Nations
Where cannabis is concerned, the U.N.’s own position on the plant is increasingly contradictory. As advocacy group American for Safe Access noted, the U.N. World Health Organization’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) issued findings in June that cannabis is a “relatively safe drug,” already used by millions across the world to treat a wide spectrum of medical conditions. The ECDD conducted a survey of 953 medical marijuana patients from 31 nations before issuing the findings.
The report found that an estimated 183 million adults used cannabis worldwide in 2015. Cannabis is cultivated in 135 countries and is the “most widely illicitly produced drug worldwide.”
The ECDD is currently preparing a “critical review” of THC, having already issued one in August on CBD — basically calling for its descheduling and removal from the Single Convention.
Secretary-General Guterres himself has been a proponent of a more tolerant approach, having served as Prime Minister of Portugal when that country depenalized all drugs in 2001. In March, Guterres said in a video statement that he believes the decriminalization of all drugs and emphasis of healthcare over law enforcement would be the best way to address substance abuse around the world.
Yet the U.N. International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) in its 2017 annual report accused Uruguay of acting in “clear violation” of global drug control accords by legalizing cannabis. It also took aim at Jamaica for permitting the religious use of cannabis — and at U.S. states that have legalized.
“Governments and jurisdictions in North America have continued to pursue policies with respect to the legalization of the use of cannabis for non-medical purposes, in violation of the 1961 Convention,” the report stated.
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