Coauthored with Theresa Lou, research associate in the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
World leaders gather at the United Nations this week (April 19-21) for the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the world drug problem. This is the first such event since 1998, when member states committed themselves to policies aimed at eliminating illegal drugs by 2008. Trillions of taxpayer dollars and many destroyed lives later, that goal remains elusive—and illusory. This year’s UNGASS offers an overdue opportunity to rethink the war on drugs, and to appreciate how much attitudes have changed over the last eighteen years. Simply put, the longstanding global consensus behind prohibition is fracturing. Though there is little appetite to overhaul the three main international treaties—the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 1971 Expanded Convention, and the 1988 Convention against Drug Trafficking—a growing number of governments are calling for greater national flexibility in interpreting and enforcing these international obligations.
The war on drugs has been a costly failure with far-reaching, negative impacts. A short list includes unacceptable violence, political instability, mass incarceration, and human rights violations. Even the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) concedes this point: “Global drug control efforts have had a dramatic unintended consequence: a criminal black market of staggering proportions…. The illicit drug business is worth billions of dollars a year, part of which is used to corrupt government officials and poison economies.” As the Global Commission on Narcotic Drugs concluded in its landmark 2011 report, supply-side efforts that focus on eradication, interdiction, and prosecution have had little impact on global markets, even as they provide cartels and gangs with massive resources to destabilize source and transit countries. Rather than insisting on “zero tolerance” and forcing all countries into “the same rigid approach to drug policy—the same laws, and the same tough approach to their enforcement,” the commission concluded, it was time to experiment at the national level.
This reformist thesis has garnered adherents in Latin America, which has borne the heaviest brunt of the war on drugs. Murder rates in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Colombia are among the world’s highest, while drug-related violence takes 30 lives a day in Mexico. Given these figures, it came as little surprise in 2012 when the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico jointly asked the United Nations to “analyze all available options…with the aim of establishing a new paradigm….” Agreeing that the “one-law-fits-all” strategy was counterproductive, the Organization of American States (OAS) in 2013 endorsed the concept of “differentiated approaches,” arguing that governments should tailor their policies to local contexts and “individual concerns,” and might even experiment with decriminalization and legalization. More generally, the OAS defined drug addiction as a public health issue, calling on authorities to focus on treating rather than imprisoning addicts. In 2014, Uruguay became the first country in the hemisphere to legalize marijuana sales. Canada’s recently elected prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has indicated that his government will follow suit.
However, these progressive sentiments are hardly universal within the Western Hemisphere, much less across the broader UN membership. Standing in opposition to the reform-minded coalition of Latin American and Western European countries (including Portugal, which decriminalized all drugs in 2001) is a larger conservative bloc spanning much of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, as well as Russia, which is dead set against liberalization. This divergence has been attributed to different historical experiences and threat perceptions. In Latin America, for example, aggressive strategies are associated with U.S. imperialism, whereas in East Asia imperial powers are remembered for addicting people to opium. Likewise, Latin Americans associate the global prohibition regime with intense crime and violence, a phenomenon absent from Asia despite similar drug production, trafficking, and consumption levels.
As for the United States, its traditional standing as the global champion and enforcer of narcotics prohibition has become more complicated and tenuous. Much of the problem comes from below—that is, from the individual U.S. states. How credibly can U.S. diplomats defend the 1961 Single Convention when Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and the District of Columbia, have already legalized marijuana for recreational use? At home, the federal government has adopted an innovative policy of “enforcement discretion,” in effect allowing states to experiment so long as they abide by certain rules. The White House, meanwhile, has subtly shifted the national conversation about drug addiction away from a focus on crime (and resulting incarceration) and toward public health approaches.
Abroad, the United States has struggled with how to adapt to this changing landscape. Over the past two years, the Obama administration has tried to make the best of an awkward situation, arguing that the three major counter-narcotics treaties are not a straitjacket, and that countries should make use of the flexibility that they provide. As William Brownfield, assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, argues, “there is a degree of discretion authorize and permitted by those conventions themselves…” Still, as Brownfield himself noted in an interview, “My use of the word ‘flexibility’ has been a policy Rorschach. People understand it according to what they want it to mean.” For the United States, the notion that the conventions are more flexible than anybody previously thought—while legally dubious—has obvious political utility, promising to mute potential tensions.
So will UNGASS bring about any sweeping reforms to global drug policy? Not likely, to judge from the draft outcome document produced at last month’s Vienna meeting of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs. Wherever possible, the document pays homage to the existing conventions. By reaffirming their commitment to the objectives of the current prohibitionist regime, member states have all but ensured the debate will be held within the confines of the status quo, while acknowledging that the conventions “allow for sufficient flexibility” for states to design and implement policies according to their needs. Overall, the global appetite for change remains small. Major powers have little interest in reopening the international drug policy debate, and few countries are willing to openly recognize the structural deficiencies of the existing UN treaty framework for drugs.
By papering over the current global “dissensus,” UN negotiators may avoid a headache in New York. It’s less clear that this rhetorical sleight of hand will be sustainable over the long turn. If parties to the three conventions continue to move in radically different directions—with some holding the hard line and others moving toward decriminalization or even legalization—a rupture in the global drug regime seems inevitable. The fragile consensus can likely tolerate disagreements over the treatment of cannabis. But fundamental divergences over the legal status of harder drugs like heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines—and state obligations for interdiction and prosecution of such trafficking—could create enormous frictions, as well as open new criminal opportunities for legal and regulatory arbitrage.
Rather than delivering the final word, this year’s UNGASS will be just the opening discussion in an ongoing—and ideally, more honest and realistic—conversation about the challenge of narcotics and the most promising approaches to limiting their damaging impacts. Attitudes toward drugs are evolving in many societies, and UNGASS is proof that these grassroots changes can affect global debates. At the last UNGASS, back in 1998, the assembled governments pledged themselves to the fantastical goal of a “drug free” world. This week’s slogan is for “a society free of drug abuse by 2019.” That is admittedly a subtle tweak. But given the history of the global war on drugs, it surely constitutes progress.