U.N. to consider significant reforms to international drug policy

At what is being billed as the most significant high-level gathering on global drug policy in two decades, the stage will be set for world leaders to discuss what would have once been unthinkable — reversing course in the war on drugs.

The United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem, which begins Tuesday in New York, will bring together government, human rights and health leaders to discuss whether the hard-line tactics of combating drug trafficking and money laundering have failed.

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FOR THE RECORD

April 22, 10:06 a.m.: This article quotes Yuri Fedotov, the executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, as saying the agency was changing course in the war on drugs and was examining the decriminalization of drug use, among other innovations. Though the U.N. was examining policy changes, that statement was based on a news release that was a hoax.  Fedotov’s other comments in the article are based on an email conversation he had with The Times. The article also quotes Kevin Campo, who is identified in the fake news release as a spokesman for the U.N. agency. He is not an agency spokesman.

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It will also provide a forum for reformists and government leaders who are pushing for turning the current drug policy on its head by halting drug-related incarcerations, treating drug abuse as a health issue rather than a crime and even legalizing drugs.

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"The drug control regime that emerged during the last century has proven disastrous for global health, security and human rights," reads a statement to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that was signed last week by more than 1,000 world leaders, activists and celebrities. The letter urges a complete rethinking of the conventional war on drugs.

As the summit opened Tuesday, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime announced new international recommendations, including the decriminalization of marijuana, universal access to controlled medicines, criminal justice system reforms including elimination of mandatory minimum jail sentences and abolition of the death penalty and acknowledging marijuana’s medical use.

"The science increasingly supports decriminalization and harm reduction over proscriptive, fear-based approaches," UNODC Executive Director Yuri Fedotov said in a statement Tuesday. "It's time to reverse the cycles of violence that occur wherever 'drug wars' are undertaken, and to abandon policies that exacerbate suffering."

The UNODC also said it would reform its decision-making process to include a more diverse range of voices.

"We can begin to dismantle 'just say no' policies that result in millions needlessly killed and incarcerated — and that defy logic and science — and instead bring to the forefront humane solutions that are known to work," said Kevin Campo, a spokesman for the drugs agency.

In the United States, federal authorities remain opposed to the legalization of drugs, although some states allow the sale and use of marijuana.

In Canada, government leaders are calling for greater flexibility to control cannabis, by relaxing criminal sanctions and possibly legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana. Mexico is already debating a bill to legalize pot and changes in its drug laws.

In Colombia, where drug wars have claimed thousands of lives and criminal bands compete to control the lucrative exports, government leaders have long complained that the current global drug policy puts the nation in a difficult position — obligated to crack down on the production of heroin, cocaine and marijuana, yet faced with the economic realities of rural areas where poor farmers have few options but to join the drug trade.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has complained that the laws put too much onus on producing countries to destroy supply and not enough on consuming nations to block demand.

"What Colombians want is that the U.N. become cognizant of its other mandates, not just to control drugs but promote the well-being of the population, foment human development and protect human life," said Bruce Bagley, a drug-trafficking expert and international relations professor at the University of Miami who is participating in the U.N. special session this week.

Colombia is expected to ask the U.N. to liberalize its rules regarding drug use and help with economic alternatives to growing coca, poppies and marijuana. The country also might consider legalizing "dispensaries" where heroin addicts can take the narcotic under relatively hygienic conditions.

But not all nations favor relaxation of global drug control. Russia and China, for example, support more forceful drug suppression policies, while in Saudi Arabia and Singapore offenders can still face the death penalty for smoking pot.

"We want a drug-free society, not a drug-tolerant one," Desmond Lee, a senior minister of state in Singapore's Home Affairs and National Development ministries said at a preparatory session before this week's summit.

Fedotov said the high-level gathering presents an opportunity "to create the necessary cooperation to address the world drug problem." But he insisted it was not "simply about policy."

"It is about putting people first," Fedotov said in written responses to questions from The Times. "This means supporting health and human rights, promoting the safety and security of all our societies, emphasizing the role of the international drug control conventions in promoting the health and welfare of humankind, and acknowledging that every country has a shared responsibility to confront this issue."

Drug reform advocates are not convinced that the policy as it stands serves the best interest of the world's citizens.

Those who signed the letter to the U.N. secretary-general, including Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, charge that the system focuses so heavily on criminalization and punishment that it has "created a vast illicit market that has enriched criminal organizations, corrupted governments, triggered explosive violence, distorted economic markets and undermined basic moral values."

Governments, they argue, have "devoted disproportionate resources to repression at the expense of efforts to better the human condition."

In the U.S., for example, poor people and racial and ethnic minorities have faced mass incarceration for mostly low-level and nonviolent drug law violations. Problem drug use has spread along with infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, while access to harm reduction and other treatment options have been hampered because of outdated attitudes about such programs, activists say.

"There's been this obsession with eradicating drug use altogether but that's unlikely to ever actually happen" said Diederik Lohman, an associate director with the health and human rights division of Human Rights Watch. "We should be trying to minimize the use of drugs to protect public health."

Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton has faced criticism over her husband's "three strikes" crime bill that authorized life sentences for criminals convicted of a violent felony after two or more prior convictions, including drug crimes. The policy is widely believed to have contributed to prison overcrowding and the disproportionate jailing of minorities.

In other countries, the global drug policy has served as an excuse for unjust punishment and execution. Destruction of drug crops has also caused environmental harm and deepened poverty in some nations where farmers depend on the yields to survive. And despite the billions of dollars spent on pursuing, killing, prosecuting, extraditing and imprisoning kingpins, dealers and people who use drugs, illicit drugs are less expensive and more accessible today than ever before, according to Human Rights Watch.

Simply put, Lohman and others argue, "the so-called war on drugs has been lost."

Times special correspondent Chris Kraul in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on April 19, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Has the war on drugs failed? - A U.N. special session will examine the effects of the hard-line approach and will study alternatives." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe

UPDATE

11:41 a.m.: This story has been updated with added comment from Yuri Fedotov and from Kevin Campo.

The first version of this post was published at 2:59 a.m. 

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