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Drug Policy Reform on Center Stage at UNGASS

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Drug Policy Reform on Center Stage at UNGASS

This 4/20, while many cannabis users will be somewhere at a smoke out, the most hardcore of drug policy reformers will be in New York, lobbying the United Nations at the UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs (UNGASS). UNGASS is taking place today through April 21.

Though the UNGASS had been scheduled to happen in 2019, an effort begun four years by the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico successfully got the UNGASS moved to 2016. The attempt to move the international gathering was due primarily to the rapidly changing political climate around drug use, primarily cannabis use, as more and more countries legalize marijuana in some form; not to mention the ones who have decriminalized all drug use.

All things considered, a lot has changed since the last UNGASS in 1998, and the time has come for the UN to update their policies to better match the changing politics of their member-states. Now that the UNGASS is happening, an important question is will the UNGASS be a new chapter for international drug legalization, or will it merely preserve the status quo?

Currently, the UN has two main ways to enforce international drug law, through painful economic sanctions or writing really scary sounding press releases; they prefer the latter approach, because a letter is much less messy than thousands of dead civilians. A 2012 press release by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) makes the UN’s position pretty clear: “The INCB President requested the Government of the United States to take the necessary measures to ensure full compliance with the international drug control treaties within the entire territory of the United States.” To not comply could risk economic sanctions and all manner of other UN shenanigans, should the UN opt to bring the hammer down on countries who violate international law, such as the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, Portugal, Uruguay, Mexico, the Czech Republic, Australia ect.

Dr. Wayne Hall is a known drug warrior who has been misusing statistics to keep cannabis illegal for years, as a researcher for the INCB, Dr. Hall believes that, America is already violating international law because Colorado, Oregon, Alaska, Washington and Washington, DC have all legalized adult use cannabis. For Dr. Hall, “This has major international significance because the U.S. State Department has been the major architect and defender of the international drug control treaty system. The failure of the U.S. government to comply with the drug control treaties will be seen as giving a license to other [countries] to do the same.”

Dr. Hall was correct, and now Canada is in the international spotlight after a passionate speech by Hilary Geller, an assistant deputy minister of health, caused a stir at the 2016 Commission on Narcotic Drugs conference in Vienna last month. Geller made it clear that Canada’s newly-elected Liberal government views harm reduction as “critical” to the nation’s well-being, and had plans to “legalize, strictly regulate and restrict access to” cannabis to further that view. This was not to be limited to cannabis, “with one long-standing supervised injection site already operating in Canada, we have recently approved a second, and anticipate that there will be others in future.”

Instead of Canada’s intent to break international law being met with disapproval and the threat of UN sanctions, “The audience… ‘erupted in applause‘ mid-way through the address and gave a prolonged ovation at the end.” The overwhelmingly positive response to Hilary Geller’s speech in Vienna offers a glimpse into how the international community feels about changing UN policy away from U.S.-style War on Drugs policies, and towards a view on drug use and addiction where harm reduction replaces police militarization.

Not all groups present in Vienna agreed. Kevin Sabet, from Smarter Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), was there speaking out against “some member states’ legalization of psychoactive drugs” which “violate the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, and threaten international cooperation concerning drug abuse and trafficking.” For Sabet, “legalization is about one thing: making a small number of business people rich.”

Sabet was largely alone in his fears and fearmongering, with most real experts on drugs and addiction coming out in favor of legalization and regulation as a public health issue. The Lancet and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health just released a report, whose 26 co-authors agreed that the “harms of criminal markets and other consequences of prohibition [are] likely to lead more countries (and more U.S. states) to move gradually towards regulated drug markets — a direction we endorse.” This report was authored and timed with “the hope that it would enrich discussions” at the upcoming UNGASS in New York.

The UN isn’t the only important governmental body looking into changing how cannabis is regulated, the DEA recently indicated that they could potentially reschedule cannabisin the first half of 2016.” According to Jacob Sullum, senior editor at Reason magazine, the DEA is unlikely to reschedule this year for three main reasons, “The agency always drags its feet before saying no, saying yes would require an embarrassing reversal, and the president has passed the buck to Congress.”

If the UN were to signal a change in international policy at the UNGASS it could give the green light to the DEA to reschedule cannabis, but that is asking a lot from the regulators at the DOJ and DEA who have a huge monetary incentive to keep cannabis, and all drugs, illegal. What matters is that America and the international community may both have new approaches to cannabis legalization before the Presidential election in November, giving candidates from both parties something very important to talk about.

What do you think will the UN meeting result in real change in drug policy?

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