If the war on drugs is failing, U.N. Assembly doesn’t see it

Bolivian President Evo Morales holds up coca leaves at a news conference after addressing a United Nations special session on drugs.

Bolivian President Evo Morales holds up coca leaves at a news conference after addressing a United Nations special session on drugs.

(Bebeto Matthews / Associated Press)

Advocates for drug reform, who were hoping that a high-level summit this week might lead to a turnaround of decades-old global drug policies that many consider failed steps in the war on drugs, left the meeting disappointed.

The document adopted at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem that ended Thursday in New York failed to address serious flaws in international regulations, activists said.

“The document does not acknowledge the comprehensive failure of the current drug control regime to reduce drug supply and demand,” the Global Commission on Drug Policy said in a statement. “Nor does [it] account for the damaging effects of outdated policies on violence and corruption as well as on population health, human rights and well-being.”

Afghan farmers harvest opium sap from a poppy field in Kandahar province's Zari district.

Afghan farmers harvest opium sap from a poppy field in Kandahar province’s Zari district.

(Jawed Tanveer / AFP/Getty Images)

Many reformists, health specialists and government leaders were hoping the summit would chart a new course toward ending drug-related incarcerations, treating drug abuse as a health issue rather than a crime and even legalizing drugs.



6:47 a.m.: A previous version of this article contained a purported statement from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. That statement was based on a fraudulent news release, and it has been removed.


But the outcome document largely adheres to the current norms and fails to reflect the splintered global attitudes on drugs, activists said. Jamaica, for example, defended its position of allowing its citizens to possess small amounts of marijuana without penalty. Mexico announced that it would propose a partial decriminalization of cannabis use, such as allowing it for medical and scientific purpose, while Canada announced that it would move toward legalizing pot next year.


Countries that voiced opposition to relaxing stringent drug war laws included Russia, China, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, where drug possession can lead to execution.

Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, outlined the Obama administration’s preference to focus on criminal organizations in the war on drugs and provide treatment and recovery support services to people with substance issues.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a leading advocate for reforming marijuana laws who attended the summit as as a congressional observer, expressed disappointment that the U.S. did not use the event to be ”more of a voice on reform.”

“Mr. Botticelli’s statements on behalf of the United States were right in acknowledging the importance of a public health approach, but he didn’t go far enough to embrace a true change of direction by the United States,” Blumenauer said in written remarks. “Our goal should be to put an end to mindless military action and hard-edged policies that have proven to fail. We need to replace them with policies focused on harm reduction and effective regulation as tools.”

Kevin Sabet, a former Obama administration senior advisor for drug policy and president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, attended the summit as part of a delegation representing more than 300 organizations under the banner “Prevent Don’t Promote.” They call for science-based marijuana education and awareness and favor a more measured approach to allowing use of the substance.

“We agree that reforms of criminal justice need to be made and absolutely the principle of human rights needs to be upheld, but we think legalizing drugs would not only be an utter public health disaster but … antithetical to a human rights agenda, in particular the rights of children to grow up drug free,” Sabet said in an email.


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