Drug policy experts discuss upcoming UN session

The International Drug Policy Conference 2015 is underway in Washington DC, and several experts and scholars convened on Friday evening to discuss the United Nations’ General Assembly’s Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs – which will take place in 2016. The session will be a unique opportunity for the War on Drugs’ failure to be at the centre of the global political stage.

Steve Rolles, the Senior Policy Analyst at the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, moderated Friday’s event. Rolles described how the UN’s member states are unwilling to publicly acknowledge state-mandated human rights abuses, such as executions and disproportionate incarceration, which occur as a result of the War on Drugs. The UNGASS, he suggests, will force nations to publicly admit the drug war’s inconsistency with international human rights legislation.

The global backdrop to the drug policy debate has shifted in the past five years, with considerable reforms occurring in the United States and abroad. Ann Fordham, the director of the International Drug Policy Consortium, posited that the US government’s position, as the number one enforcer of the global drug war, has had a tangible – and positive – impact on the international debate.

The movement is growing, and an increasing number of organisations are realising the overlap between their work and that of drug policy reformers. Fordham noted how UNGASS is “galvanising people” across humanitarian and activist sectors. Non-profit groups within the realms of development, poverty alleviation, and HIV/AIDS reduction, are incorporating themselves within the drug policy reform movement due to the causes’ inextricable links. Fordham emphasised that this unity must continue after the UNGASS; “we must continue to work together”.

Claudia Salcedo, a coordinator in Colombia’s Ministry of Justice and Law, identified the two diverging approaches that UN member states are bringing to the discussion. Many are still promoting the concept of a “drug-free world”, and are opposed to change, while some are exhibiting openness to reform and the tackling of different challenges. The positions of states, Salcedo suggested, are unlikely to change between now and the UNGASS – so it is essential that nations that are willing to reform make their voices heard.

Luciana Pol, a senior fellow at Argentina’s Center of Legal and Social Studies, ascribed the corrosion of justice systems in Latin America, as well as the enormous bloodshed that the region has faced in recent years, to the illegality of the international drugs market. Latin America, Pol described, is the “kitchen” of the trade, as it is home to swathes of territory used to grow coca and marijuana. However, unlike licit international markets, there is no ‘fair trade coca’; the lack of access to ethically produced cocaine makes it inevitable that human rights abuses will perpetuate.

The speakers agreed that the UNGASS is unlikely to bring about revolutionary change, but it will undoubtedly add pressure to the international movement for drug policy reform.


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