The contentious debate over international drug policy was potentially transformed a few weeks ago, when the United States strongly reiterated a major shift in policy.
William R. Brownfield, assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs summed up the key idea underpinning the shift at the United Nations on Oct. 9:
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 legalize entire categories of drugs.
The statement is hugely significant as it represents a new diplomatic doctrine and a potential tipping point in efforts to end the disastrous “war on drugs” that has lasted six decades.
It recognizes that immediate reform of the UN drug control conventions (the core of which is the 1961 Single Convention), while necessary, is not yet feasible. But it acknowledges that UN conventions should never serve as a barrier to improving global drug policies and that different policies will work for different regions and nations. Lastly, it accepts that member states can reinterpret the conventions in response to new scientific evidence and with careful regard to other international human rights norms and obligations — as Uruguay has done in the case of cannabis regulation.
The United States was a key architect of the international control system, begun in 1909, and has traditionally served as chief proselytizer for a repressive prohibitionist model globally. Although it initially rejected the 1961 Single Convention as too weak relative to its predecessor treaties, the United States soon embraced it as a useful mechanism to rally nations towards the global war on drugs, formally launched in the 1970s. The United States soon worked to strengthen the convention through successor treaties, funding initiatives and aggressive bilateral drug diplomacy.
Now that the United States has openly rejected the role of key bilateral enforcer the United Nations will likely cease to be a forum where states are pressured to pursue the war on drugs orthodoxy. Instead, it can become a forum that facilitates cooperation and discussion on a new range of policy approaches.
The main obstacle to this change will likely remain Russia and a coalition of conservative states that are reticent to move away from a militarized and repressive police response. Nonetheless, Russia, despite a strong grip on the UN drug control apparatus, will struggle to enforce its vision due to the post-Ukraine diplomatic freeze and a general recognition that Russia’s domestic drug policies have fuelled incarceration, human rights abuses and a HIV epidemic.
As states approach the 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs, Brownfield’s framework provides a practical way forward. It allows states to push ahead with various national regulatory reforms, including regulated markets around the recreational use of certain drugs. It focuses diplomatic effort on preserving the ‘core’ of the conventions — nothing to do with national cannabis or coca leaf prohibitions, and everything to do with regulating licit markets for pain medicines.
And it focuses enforcement efforts on minimizing the impact of illicit markets through effective targeting of criminal gangs, rather than blanket enforcement of impossible global prohibitions. Finally, it allows regions to move ahead with case-specific policies that reflect their local needs, rather than acting as agents of a self-destructive global ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy.
The United Nations and member states are moving toward a more nuanced understanding that places the drug conventions within broader contexts of human rights, indigenous rights and other frameworks of health and human empowerment. As Brownfield points out, part of this shift is driven by the need to make rational determinations of resource allocation and interpret implementation of the conventions accordingly.
The United States federal government does not believe making U.S. states comply with drug conventions on cannabis is a good use of resources. Other nations should make similar, case specific, determinations.
Legal reform of the international drug conventions is certainly required but only prior national reforms will make that process seem necessary and inevitable to member states.
The course outlined in the Brownfield doctrine appears the best strategy to ensure the survival and modernization of the global drug control framework for the immediate future.
PHOTO: U.S. coast guard officers stand next to seized cocaine packages, on the deck of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell at Naval Base San Diego in San Diego, October 6, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Blake