UNGASS and the consequences of international drug policy

In the coming weeks, the eyes of the drug policy community will be fixated on the United Nations. As the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem draws near, the future of international drug policy is at stake. Questions abound about whether UNGASS will push forward the status quo or be open to reform. Will recent changes to drug laws in states across the U.S., and in member countries like Uruguay, Canada, Colombia, Spain, Mexico, and others drive the international body to shift away from a powerfully prohibitionist position?

On April 7, Brookings’ Foreign Policy and Governance Studies programs hosted a panel on this topic, exploring how UNGASS may (or may not) change the drug policy landscape, what America’s role is in that discussion, and how the current state of drug policy throughout the world be impacted by the U.N. session. In many ways, UNGASS has flown under the radar outside of the wonky, scientific communities who are addicted to the nuance of drug policy. Despite that lack of attention, the current state of drug policy has serious implications and far reaching effects for everyone.

Much of the framework on international drug policy exists because of the forceful advocacy and insistence of the U.S. government on worldwide prohibition. That advocacy led to the most prominent international agreement on drugs: the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs signed in 1961. The Single Convention created not only an international legal structure, but became the bedrock of many national drug laws, like the Controlled Substances Act in the United States.

The manner in which international drug policy has been implemented has had profound consequences throughout the world and the fallout can be seen in a variety of areas. Here are a few:

Setting the tone on drug policy

The U.S.-driven, U.N. drug policy prescribes a one size fits all policy around drugs for a variety of substances throughout the world. The challenge is that, for many strategic reasons, that stance forced other member nations to adopt it. This ensured that uniform policies, applied to a varied set of nations, resulted in dramatically different outcomes. Some nations had better experiences than others, but all experienced challenges.

What’s more, American leadership in this area made it more difficult for other nations to lobby for reforms on the international stage. For decades, nations were “policy-takers.” That is, they had little choice but to accept the international agreements, abide by the rules, and ultimately deal with whatever consequences may arise. Over time, however, that tacit acceptance of international order began to decay—among member nations and even within individual American states. Now, the United Nations will convene a special session in an international environment whose drug policy has gone through a dramatic transformation over the past few years.

The U.S. government, a bystander to policy change

Despite international prohibition, governments began to consider alternatives, including liberalizing drug laws in various ways. Efforts toward policy experimentation sought to push the envelope of the international status quo and make laws work better for the environment and context in which they would be enforced. Such changes caught on. Coffee shops in Amsterdam and cannabis clubs in Spain gave way to full-fledged medical marijuana programs in places like Canada and California and eventually adult-use legalization in four American states, the District of Columbia, and Uruguay.

In the process, the U.S. government could have met the other U.N. member states in the middle, guiding them away from complete liberalization and toward policies that are more acceptable. Instead, an absolutist commitment to the international status quo, even as American states “go rogue,” leaves the U.S. as a policy bystander, watching as nations push the limits of international law—and even defy it.

By doing so, the U.S. has largely passed on a strategic opportunity to work within the new and changing international context, allowing pre-existing policy biases and commitments to reign supreme.

That means that the U.S. government position is weakened with regard to international policy. It also means that the U.S. government looks more deeply hypocritical, turning an explicit blind eye to full-scale adult-use legalization in five of its jurisdictions and medical marijuana legalization in 24 of its jurisdictions. All the while, the government frowns upon abrogation of international law by other nations seeking to change their drug laws.

A failure to acknowledge the international consequences of prohibition

In the 1960s, drug prohibition—and particularly marijuana prohibition—was widely seen as an effective policy to guard against dangerous drugs. Over time, it became clear that drug prohibition (as implemented) created very serious, negative consequences in many countries across the world. Prohibition did not stop drug production, sale, or use. Instead, it helped determine the types of individuals participating in the drug business. In Central and Southeast Asia and in Latin America, prohibition drove huge increases in cartel activity and violent crime. Murder rates skyrocketed in many countries and drugs were used to fund a variety of terrorist organizations.

Nations suffered deeply as a result of international drug policy, and in many cases, the response to such scenarios, was not a change in policy, but a doubling down on existing policy. That further deepened many of the crises that nations around the world were experiencing. Rather than achieving the intended goal—an elimination of the drug trade and drug use—U.N. policy intensified many of the challenges around the world.

We need an honest assessment of the status quo. That denial of the negative consequences of drug prohibition cost lives, threatened the legitimacy of democratically elected governments, and cost a significant amount of American aid and funding from foreign governments. In a significant way, the goals of the international drug war were not achieved and the response was not better policy.

A failure to acknowledge the domestic consequences of prohibition

The U.S. felt consequences from drug prohibition, and particularly marijuana prohibition, as well. Governments across the United States—federal, state, and local—expended massive sums of money to combat drug use. Those efforts were admirable in part, but also devastating. The drug war introduced hundreds of thousands of young individuals, especially individuals of color, to the criminal justice system. It helped contribute to a society notorious for incarceration of individuals using drugs, rather than providing treatment for those using drugs. The costs in dollars, in human capital, and in foregone opportunity were staggering.

Like in the international arena, the domestic arena offered government an opportunity to respond to policy failure with policy changes. However, for decades, the response was exactly the opposite: it was a continuation of existing policy despite evidence of both its harmful effects and its inability to achieve its intended goals. Politicians battled between fears of being labeled soft on drugs and acknowledging the realities of the fallout of drug policy. Few elected officials were willing to acknowledge such inconsistency—for medical or recreational use of certain drugs. When they did, those officials were seen as fringe politicians. Congressmen like Stewart McKinney (R-CT), Barney Frank (D-MA), and Ron Paul (R-TX) were seen not as forward-thinking policymakers, but as fringe politicians peddling nonsensical policy.

All the while, calls for reform of drug laws grew louder. Particularly in the context of marijuana, calls for its use for medicinal purposes began to rise in prominence. Those efforts began with advocacy organizations. Soon, they became the talking points of more mainstream organizations focused on rights and equality. Eventually, states joined in the efforts, passing medical marijuana ballot initiatives and legislation—all but begging the federal government to reconsider its stance on these issues. Often, the U.S. government hid behind its obligations under the Single Convention to avoid expanding research into illicit substances, even as scientific and medical exceptions to prohibition were explicitly spelled out in the U.N. treaty for marijuana and other drugs. In fact, it was not until this week—55 years after the signing of the single convention—that a document was issued by the US government that offered an honest assessment of the government’s obligations under the Single Convention and its opportunities afforded to it via medical and scientific exceptions.

The costs of the status quo in drug policy

International drug policy, as implemented in member nations, has caused damage to a variety of communities. For decades, the US interpreted the single convention to prohibit a variety of activities, such as medical exceptions for marijuana use, despite clear language to the contrary. This hindered the scientific and medical communities from answering critical research questions. In the process it also harmed patients, doctors, scientists and others who actively sought a different path for such policy.

Last month in a Brookings Essay entitled “The Medical Marijuana Mess,” I profiled a patient and a cannabis business owner who have been mightily harmed by the US government’s stance on marijuana policy. That position kept patients—even children—sick; barring them from the use of a substance that science has shown has real opportunity to offer medicinal value and therapeutic benefits. It complicated efforts to use marijuana for medical uses while operating within the bounds of international law.

The challenge for many is not only that the U.S. government creates obstacles to medical research and the provision of a substance that has been indicated as beneficial for the treatment of epilepsy, PTSD, chemotherapy side effects, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS-related conditions, muscle spasticity, pain management, and many other conditions. The government has been dishonest about how international law serves as a primary limitation.

Perhaps the goal of international drug policy was to limit “less desirable” foreign nations from producing and distributing drugs. The result has been a system within the United States that has been harmful to many.

As the U.N. prepares to revisit its position on drug policy via the Single Convention, it has a real chance to look back at what the last 55 years have delivered to the international community. It needs not scrap the existing system wholly. But it can respond to the legitimate scientific, medical, social, and political changes since then and adjust international policy accordingly and responsibly.