“A Drug-Free World—We can do it!” That’s the slogan that was agreed upon and adopted as the United Nations’ mandate when this body last convened in a major summit in 1998 to discuss global drug policy. Today, there is little question that global drug control has been misguided, overly punitive and largely ineffective, and has steered national drug policies in disastrous directions.
UN member states will come together again next week, from April 19-21 in New York, for another summit on drug control: UNGASS 2016. The question now is whether the UN can dispense with its old, unrealistic and harmful slogan and adopt a position in line with human rights and science.
The global drug control regime that member states must consider dates from 1961, and its age is showing. The UN drug conventions go out of their way to demonize drugs without reference to science—an approach ripe for abuse in punitive and discriminatory ways.
Marijuana is a prime example. It is described in the conventions as “particularly liable to abuse and to produce ill effect” and without any therapeutic value. That classification is not surprising in view of the ranting at UN meetings in the 1950s by the then-US drug czar, Harry Anslinger, that the “killer weed” marijuana was the “most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind” and its consumption was linked to immorality among “Negroes, Hispanics and jazz musicians”.
Though some countries have in recent years stepped away from the UN’s classification of marijuana, many retain laws that were influenced by the UN treaties. Across Africa and in much of Asia, in spite of acceptance of many traditional and cultural uses of marijuana, national laws are particularly harsh. In Kenya, for example, the law states that where an accused person can convince the court that the marijuana he or she possesses is for individual use only, the prison sentence can be up to 10 years—in all other cases, it’s up to 20 years.
Several countries have begun to recognize the misinformed view of the UN on marijuana regulation. Four states in the US and Uruguay have legalized recreational marijuana use by adults, and multiple US states and several countries around the globe have decriminalized possession.
Some have changed marijuana policies because of concerns of racial discrimination in the enforcement of drug laws. For example, in the US at the state level, black people are about four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than their white counterparts. At the federal level, Hispanics represent two-thirds of the individuals arrested for marijuana violations. This is despite the fact that blacks, Hispanics and whites all use the drug at similar rates.
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