The ‘War on Drugs’ has been lost. Not only has it failed to reduce problematic drug use, it has cost more than a trillion dollars over the past few decades, and produced horrific unintended consequences. It has left in its wake a trail of violence, human rights abuse, and infectious disease.
The United States is at the forefront of countries that bear responsibility for this state of affairs. For more than 50 years, its leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, have pursued harsh and often abusive drug control policies domestically, an approach they then sought to have adopted by the rest of the world.
As the chief architect of the global approach to drugs, the United States has a unique opportunity to acknowledge the disastrous legacy of the policies it advocated and to provide leadership in trying to come up with a new approach to drugs. Such an approach should reduce the harm drugs can cause without perpetrating widespread human rights abuse and violence.
The US government has so far failed to seize that opportunity. At a time when all options should be on the table to resolve an urgent crisis, the US has opted to think small. In the negotiations preceding this week’s meeting, it has pursued what US chief negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield, has called a ‘pragmatic reform agenda’ – code for seeking uncontroversial middle ground in a polarized debate.
To its credit, the Obama administration has allowed experimentation domestically with new drug control models – most notably regulation of cannabis in Colorado, Washington and other states. But the administration has resisted encouraging similar experiments outside the United States. The US initially proposed a ‘Brownfield Doctrine’ that emphasised a flexible interpretation of the UN drug control conventions – and seemed to suggest US openness to countries experimenting with alternatives to criminalization. But Brownfield then disingenuously mischaracterised the agenda of drug policy reformers, saying they “espouse complete legalization, arguing that if only we would legalise the product, all of these problems would immediately disappear”.
The administration has made some positive contributions to the negotiations, notably by advocating greater emphasis on health-centred drug policies and alternatives to incarceration for people who use drugs. But the urgency of today’s situation calls for bolder steps than just tinkering with the margins of the ‘War on Drugs’.
The UN document on the War on Drugs mirrors the US ambition level and that lacks any sense of urgency for reform. It represents little more than a continuation of the current failed approach. While there are some positive changes in tone and substance compared with similar documents from years past, it recommits countries to achieving the patently unachievable goal of “eliminating or significantly reducing” illicit drugs by 2019. Disturbingly, the document refrains from even mentioning the grave harm to health, human rights and security current drug policies cause and from urging any action to address this harm.
Repeating the mistakes of the past will not improve the future. A new global approach is urgently needed, one that reduces both the harm caused by of drugs and the harm caused by current drug control policies. We need to decriminalise drug use and possession and ensure that people who use drugs have access to good health services. We need to encourage different models for regulating cannabis. And we need, more broadly, to reduce the role of criminalisation and criminal justice to the extent truly required to protect health and safety.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘US should seek bold new approach on drugs’.