For a brief moment it appeared that good sense would prevail and the international community would ditch the failed ‘war on drugs’ policy. But, all hopes were dashed at the United Nations General Assembly special session on drugs (UNgass) between April 19 and 21 in New York.
Sadly, the UN maintained prohibitionist policies banning narcotics use, and, by doing so, left producers and traffickers delighted with an illegal trade worth billions of dollars. The retained policy also continues the criminalisation of users of small quantities; deploys security and police forces into costly exercises that deflects them from tackling serious criminal activity; fills prisons with young people; frightens addicts from seeking medical attention lest they be imprisoned; and perpetuates a system that allows the unfair branding of countries, such as many in the Caribbean, as complicit in drug trafficking.
This reactionary stance was adopted by too many states to allow a more progressive approach to be adopted. Yet, the countries in the forefront of the drive for reform were ones that have been most affected by the traffic in narcotics. Among them were Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala. Not surprisingly, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos, has described the UN posture as “insane”.
Before the meeting, President Santos had outlined a four-point plan that he hoped would garner support from UN members, resulting in a radical overhaul of global policy. Point one called for the framing of policy on drugs within a context of human rights so as to stop persecuting the victims of drug abuse, and abolishing the death penalty for drug related offences as in Singapore.
The second point was to allow nations to reform their drug laws in accordance with specific needs and threats to populations, rather than being straitjacketed by international conventions.
The third point challenged the global community to adopt “a more comprehensive approach”; a transition from a purely repressive response to a public health framework to the treatment of drug consumption focusing on prevention, attention, rehabilitation and resocialisation of drug abusers.
And, the fourth point called for combating transnational organised crime in a collaborative way.
Writing in the Observer Newspaper in Britain prior to the UN meeting, President Santos was keen to stress that his plan is “not a call for legalisation of drugs”. He described it as “a call for recognition that between total war and legalisation there exists a broad range of options worth exploring if we want to take better care of drug consumers, protect our youth from drug abuse, collaborate to continue combating organised crime and provide alternative economic means to illegal crop farmers and vulnerable communities”.
But, in reality, the negotiations of the ‘outcome document’ did not take place in New York; they have been going on in Austria since late 2015. The voices of over 70 nations, including many in the Caribbean, were never heard because they have no representation in Vienna and none on the Commission on Narcotic Drugs where the document was negotiated. In this regard, there was hardly an open, honest and evidence-based debate.
The three Latin American countries that courageously proposed the UN meeting were emboldened in their decision by a voluminous Report commissioned by the Organisation of American States (OAS) in 2013 on a mandate from Heads of Government of its 34 member-states.
A telling paragraph in the Report, entitled ‘The Drug Problem in the Americas’, observes that: “Public policies devised over the past several decades to address the drug issue in the Hemisphere have not proved sufficiently flexible to draw in the new evidence needed to make them more effective, to detect unintended costs and damages, and to embrace recent economic and cultural changes. We need to develop and generate additional methods, evidence, analysis, and evaluation, to learn from both successes and failures, to adapt standards to the needs and characteristics of each specific environment, and to take into account the net impact in terms of costs and benefits of applying particular policies in a given country and society as well as for all our countries and societies”.
President Santos has said that the world needs all countries to be on board with the same approach to have an impact. “You can have a regional approach but that does not work as effectively because this is a transnational problem, and it needs the whole world to have some common denominators for the drug lords and mafias not to take advantage of these differences,” he said.
Of course, he is right. But that should not stop Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala from asking the OAS to return to considering the drugs problem, including why the UN meeting failed to move many of the member states to shed the straightjacket in which their policy thinking has been imprisoned. A good place to start the discussion would be the General Assembly of the OAS in June. The dialogue on the issue should be kept alive, and many Caribbean governments would give their support to another round of OAS analysis.
There is one useful element in the document that emerged from the UN meeting. It is an acceptance of flexibility in interpreting the UN conventions on drugs so that each country can “implement national policies according to local circumstances and challenges”.
At least countries, such as many in the Caribbean, are now released from prohibitions and constraints that dictated their policies toward the drug problem and how they treat it. They can, for instance, sponsor the production of marijuana for medicinal use and, by doing so, help bolster their flagging economies that have suffered from the loss of preferential markets for traditional agricultural produce.
Jamaica has already decriminalised possession of small amounts of marijuana, legalised the sacramental use of marijuana by Rastafarians, and established provisions for the medical, scientific and therapeutic uses of the plant. That should be standard fare across the Caribbean.
The Caribbean should also solicit the support of African nations in shifting the discussion from the UN Office in Vienna to the UN headquarters in New York where their voices can be raised, reflecting their own cultural, geographical and political reality on this crucial issue.
Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the OAS. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and Massey College, University of Toronto. The views expressed are his own)