UNGASS2016: Will Baby Steps Forward Be Enough?

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In 2013, Mexico, Guatemala, and Columbia called for a UN General Assembly Special Session because the failed War on Drugs, frankly, has created a huge financial burden on their countries. Essentially, the aggressive actions of the U.S. in policing drug traffic by air and sea has forced drug cartels to transport drugs on land.[1] This has created a corridor of crime– kidnapping, extortion, and gang violence through Latin America and Mexico to the United States. These countries are considered “transit nations” that “produce and consume few drugs,” making them “among the more innocent victims” of the War on Drugs.[2]

Unfortunately, the call by Guatemala and other countries to focus on decriminalization fell largely on a deaf audience at UNGASS2016. There was some increased discussion about focusing more on human rights; however, the majority of countries are still focused on a “dominantly courts-and-cops approach to fighting drugs.”[3] Russia stood out as the leader of a consensus of countries including Singapore and others who stand by a hardline approach to demand reduction through law enforcement. In so-called drug “treatment” programs in many Asian countries, detainees (as opposed to patients) are held in conditions where they are often treated with “sadistic violence—being shocked with electric batons, whipped with twisted electrical wire, beaten, and being chained while standing in the sun.”[4]

On the other side of the coin are the experts who argue in favor of a harm reduction strategy to solve the world’s drug crisis. Harm reductionists see the failure of the War on Drugs as a result of the extreme focus on breaking the supply-demand chain. “This approach has clearly failed as drug production, illicit use and its effects on domestic crime, health problems and drug-related violence have only expanded in recent decades in regions such as Latin America.”[5]

Unfortunately, little actual progress seems to have come out of UNGASS2016 in terms of actual policy change by the UN or its member nations; however, even though the outcome was much less than what could have been, something positive did come from the event. In 2019, the UN’s current world drug strategy will expire.[6] UNGASS2016 shined a bright and unwelcome light on the human rights abuses in Russia, Asia, Indonesia, Tanzania, and other countries. Additionally, the conference highlighted the issue of access to vital pain control medications in countries such as Guatemala, where a person must travel sometimes hundreds of miles to a single office in Guatemala City to get medicine for cancer pain.[7]

Over the coming years, the prohibitionist countries will continue with their law-enforcement based strategy, while reform-minded countries will continue to decriminalize and focus on harm-reduction based strategies. “But ultimately the reformers are likely to have the advantage. Their approach is based in science rather than ideology, and the evidence suggests strongly that they will attain the better public health outcomes.”[8]

[1] Diederick Lohman, “Guatemala’s President: ‘My Country Bears the Scars from the War On Drugs’,” Guardian, January 19, 2013, accessed April 24, 2016,http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jan/19/otto-molina-war-drugs-guatemala.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Diederick Lohman, “A Missed Opportunity to End the War On Drugs,” Rethinking the War on Drugs (blog), Human Rights Watch, April 22, 2016, accessed April 24, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/blog-feed/rethinking-war-drugs#blog-289182.

[4] Richard Pearshouse, “Why Asia’s Drug Detention Centers Need to Be Shuttered,” Rethinking the War on Drugs (blog), Human Rights Watch, April 18, 2016, accessed April 24, 2016, Diederick Lohman, “A Missed Opportunity to End the War On Drugs,” Rethinking the War on Drugs (blog), Human Rights Watch, April 22, 2016, accessed April 24, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/blog-feed/rethinking-war-drugs#blog-289182.

[5] David Scott Matheison, “A New Approach to Drug Policy and Human Rights,” Rethinking the War on Drugs (blog), Human Rights Watch, April 19, 2016, accessed April 24, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/blog-feed/rethinking-war-drugs#blog-289182.

[6] Lohman, “A Missed Opportunity to End the War on Drugs.”

[7] Diederick Lohman, “Guatemala” Where (Legal) Pain Relief is All But Impossible, Rethinking the War on Drugs (blog), Human Rights Watch, April 20, 2016, accessed April 24, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/blog-feed/rethinking-war-drugs#blog-289182.

[8] Lohman, “A Missed Opportunity to End the War on Drugs.”

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