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Why The U.N. Will Abandon 'Just Say No' Approach To Drugs

I have no idea whether the clerical staff at the United Nations chose to schedule this year's General Assembly Special Session on Narcotic Drugs (UNGASS) during 420 week as some kind of wry commentary or winking joke, but the timing feels right; there's a certain harmony between a global holiday to celebrate cannabis civil disobedience and a reform agenda to de-escalate the global drug war.

Yes, you read that right: after decades of impotent rhetoric describing a fictional "world without drugs," the United Nations is coming together, even as you read this, to work out a ceasefire on the War on Drugs.

If that comes as a surprise, you're forgiven – international drug control policy is quite complicated, after all. To the extent that there's any simplifying theme, it has been the leadership of the United States, which has pushed for increasingly strict international drug controls for over a century – which only makes this week's meeting even more surprising. Because the U.S. is once again taking the lead, but the compassionate reform agenda on the table in New York could begin the long process of dismantling, not escalating, the global War on Drugs.

For 100 years, U.S. has led War on Drugs

Last month, 240 NGOs from all around the world sent an open letter to President Obama, his drug czar Michael Botticelli and his ambassador to UNGASS William Brownfield, urging them to stand up for human rights and promote a "people-centered" approach to international drug policy. The signatories knew their history; the United States had been the prime mover of global drug control since its inception.

The first international drug control conference, held in Shanghai, China in 1909, convened largely at the behest of the American delegation headed by Bishop Charles Brent, led to the world's first international drug control treaty penned at the Hague three years later.

At subsequent conventions held in Geneva under the auspices of the League of Nations, the U.S. took a more informal leadership role because it was not a member of the League; however, the fact that the conventions of 1925 and 1931 mainly affirmed and detailed the original 1909/1912 agreements evidences the influence of the U.S. delegation behind the scenes.

The drug czar's 'steamroller diplomacy'

And of course the influence wielded by Harry Anslinger's U.S. delegation to the United Nations is the stuff of legend; the drug czar's steamroller diplomacy first helped to secure passage of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and then laid the groundwork for the militaristic interpretation which would sweep the world as the War on Drugs.

The U.S. is unquestionably one of the world's leaders in drug policy, which is why it's no surprise to see so many concerned citizens direct their concerns toward the Obama administration in the weeks before UNGASS. What is surprising, rather, is that Obama seems to be listening.

Not your grandfather's cannabis policy

So what's on the agenda this week at the UN? As far as the influential U.S. delegation is concerned, there's no mystery: Ambassador Brownfield has already gone on record explaining exactly what he intends to say, and if it reads like drug war rhetoric to you, I'd like a hit of what you're smoking:

"We are looking for a pragmatic approach to reform of global drug policy… an approach that calls for greater focus on public health and healthcare as relates to the drug issue, rehabilitation, treatment, education.

We will call for pragmatic and concrete criminal justice reform… to decriminalize much of the basic behavior in drug consumption in order to focus scarce law enforcement resources on the greater challenge of the large transnational criminal organizations.

We will propose greater focus on what we call new psychoactive substances… which in the 21st century the pharmaceutical industry can produce at a rate faster than governments or the United Nations system can actually review and register.

We will propose greater focus on alternative and economic development, accepting the logical argument that if we're going to ask subsistence-level farmers and campesinos to stop growing coca or stop growing opium poppy, they have to have some sort of alternative by which they can maintain and support their families in some degree of safety and dignity.

And finally, we will propose a recommitment by the international community to combatting and opposing transnational criminal organizations who traffic in the product for economic gain. That will be our reform agenda, as we will propose next week in Vienna and in five weeks here at the UN General Assembly Special Session.

Brownfield goes on to insist that there "is a degree of discretion authorized" by the Single Convention and advocates for "tolerance for other governments dealing with their own realities to develop their own individual national drug control policies and strategies," a reference to countries like Uruguay and Portugal which have taken radical steps to decriminalize their consumers to focus on bigger problems. Overall, the tone is remarkably closer to "Kum Ba Yah" than "Just Say No."

A long overdue win for tokers

So while this is not yet the universal blossoming of utopian freedom John Lennon invited us to imagine, plans afoot at the U.N. are definitely a big deal for the cannabis consumers 420 has always celebrated. If the Obama administration gets its way, the world will shift more scrutiny away from drugs which are old and illicit, and toward drugs which are new and unproven; away from small-time street dealers and toward the large multinational players which dominate the global trade; away from persecution of small farmers and toward oversight of the institutions which abuse them.

Will this new flexible, pragmatic approach, finally lay off the casual consumers to focus more on violent cartels and greedy pharmaceutical corporations? The odds look good, and on this 420, I'll toke to that.


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