Censored UN paper calling for decriminalization marks beginning of the end of drug war as we knew it

A UN agency censored an official paper calling for drug use decriminalization. But its message is here to stay

Published October 27, 2015 9:24PM (EDT)

Soldiers stand guard next to bags of marijuana being displayed to the media at a military base on the outskirts of Monterrey, Mexico.        (Reuters/Tomas Bravo)
Soldiers stand guard next to bags of marijuana being displayed to the media at a military base on the outskirts of Monterrey, Mexico. (Reuters/Tomas Bravo)

Recently, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime quietly circulated a remarkable document not only calling "decriminalising drug use and possession for personal consumption...consistent with international drug control conventions" but stating that doing so "may be required to meet obligations under international human rights law."

The paper's language was sober but its critique of drug criminalization devastating, noting that a law-and-order approach to drug use "contributed to public health problems and induced negative consequences for safety, security, and human rights," pointing to the limitation on access to clean needles and the resulting spread of HIV and hepatitis C, overdoses, vulnerability to physical and sexual abuse and, of course, incarceration, which disproportionately impacts poor and minority people.

Then, all of a sudden, the paper was censored—or maybe retracted or disavowed, depending on what story you buy—just before it was to be presented at last week's International Harm Reduction conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. But it was too late: the paper had already been circulated, including to reporters. The BBC published it as part of a story looking into the drama, as did Virgin's Richard Branson, who serves on the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

Soon, drug policy reform advocates began exploring the theory that the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy had shut it down, pointing to a short "world briefing" New York Times article (erroneously conflating legalization and decriminalization, it declared: "U.N. Report Did Not Endorse Legalization of Drugs, Agency Says"). An agency spokesman told the Times that "a question about the paper posed to the White House Office of National Drug Policy [sic] by The New York Times last week had been passed to the agency, alerting officials that the paper was being presented as more important than it really was."

The paper was reportedly developed by Dr. Monica Beg, the head of UNODC's HIV/AIDS section in the context of growing pressure on the the law enforcement-oriented body to join other UN agencies in embracing decriminalization ahead of next year's major UN General Assembly special session on drug policy, UNGASS 2016.

A UNODC official dismissively told the BBC that Beg was "a middle-ranking official" acting without approval of higher ups. But some advocates don't buy that explanation.

"I honestly can't speculate as to why UNODC decided at the last minute not to distribute a document that, by its own admission, was planned for public release at our conference earlier this week," says Rick Lines, executive director of Harm Reduction International, in an email. "But any observer of the UN will tell you that agencies do not add their logo to, and recommend press circulation of, draft documents or positions in development. This was not a 'rogue' document, as UNODC comms has now suggested to the press in the wake of its decision to stop publication. The document was clearly intended for international public and media release at our conference this week, and it was pulled back at the 11th hour."

The UNODC referred me to a statement posted on their website, which "emphatically denies reports that there has been pressure on UNODC to withdraw the document" in part because "it is not possible to withdraw what is not yet ready." It also stated that the paper was "neither a final nor formal document from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and cannot be read as a statement of UNODC policy."

It's hard to make much sense of this spin. The paper's first sentence reads: "This document clarifies the position of UNODC." And how was a paper "not yet ready" if the same statement acknowledged that it was "intended for dissemination and discussion" at last week's conference?

An ONDCP source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told me that the White House office had nothing do to with it. Either way, hundreds of advocates and health experts gathered in Kuala Lumpur seized on the paper's conclusions, victoriously holding copies in the air and demanding that it be released. Whether the paper gets released or not, however, is immaterial to its striking conclusions, which are carefully grounded in international law: the UN's global drug war arm conceded not only that criminalization was a mistake but also that it violates human rights.

"The behind the scenes politics here is less significant than what the document says - UNDOC, the lead UN agency responsible for drug control, has called for the removal of criminal penalties for use of drugs and the possession of drugs for personal consumption," says Lines. "This is perhaps the biggest news in international drug policy we've seen in a long, long time."

It's a big deal for a few reasons, both in the U.S. (Americans' typical disregard for the UN notwithstanding) and globally.

Other UN agencies have already embraced decriminalization. But the adoption of that position by UNODC, a more law-and-order minded agency, "is kind of the final piece in the UN jigsaw in terms of achieving crosscutting support for decriminalization across the UN family," says Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst at the UK-based drug policy think tank Transform. He attributes the internal pushback to "die hard drug warriors within the UNODC" who prioritize "enforcement indicators like seizures and arrests" over public health.

At a meeting later last week, in what may have been a show of support for the suppressed UNODC paper, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein and UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé issued sharp critiques of criminalization.

“Criminalization of possession and use of drugs causes significant obstacles to the right to health,” said Ra’ad Al-Hussein in a video message. “Drug users may justifiably fear that they would be arrested or imprisoned if they seek health care. They may even be discouraged about seeking information about safe practices for drug use.”

If the U.S. also played a role in the paper's suppression, Rolles wouldn't be surprised since "it was the U.S. that imposed a global prohibitionist framework on the world."

In addition, he says, it wouldn't be the first time it has happened: in the 1990s, the U.S. reportedly pressured the World Health Organization to pull a study challenging conventional wisdom about the dangers of cocaine, threatening to pull funding for agency research if they went ahead with publication.

Today, the Obama Administration finds itself in a very awkward position because the marijuana legalization taking place across the U.S. may violate the global treaties of which the U.S. has historically been an adamant enforcer.

"The U.S. is potentially in violation of these treaties that they helped set up," says Hannah Hetzer, Americas policy manager at the U.S.-based Drug Policy Alliance. "Previously if any country even tried to discuss alternatives to drug prohibition they'd be met with a less than positive response from the United States...When they gave the green light to some states to legalize marijuana they then had to extend that green light to foreign governments to some extent."

Fear of hypocrisy, however, hasn't stopped the U.S. from repeatedly decertifying Bolivia, a procedure that allows for the denial of foreign aid, because of its government's support for the traditional coca cultivation. That said, the UNODC paper adds to the growing international pressure for the U.S. to come to terms with the global push toward decriminalization. And that pressure may reach the boiling point at next year's General Assembly meeting.

A change in the U.S.' global drug policy—an increasing necessity given the move toward marijuana legalization at home—would create new political space for reform both domestically and around the world (though continued zealotry from Russia, China and other countries will continue to be an obstacle). The calls not only for decriminalizing drug use but also for creating legalized and regulated form of drug sales, which the Global Commission on Drug Policy has suggested, are growing louder.

The 2016 General Assembly meeting, organized at the behest of Latin American leaders critical of the drug war, is the first such special session since 1998. That year, the motto was "A Drug Free World - We can do it!" Times have certainly changed—enough, perhaps, that the Obama Administration will next year announce a bold and pragmatic new direction. The war on drugs still defines global drug policy. But its political support worldwide is crumbling.

By Daniel Denvir

Daniel Denvir is a writer at Salon covering criminal justice, policing, education, inequality and politics. You can follow him at Twitter @DanielDenvir.

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