UNITED NATIONS — Canada has promised to legalize marijuana. Mexico’s highest court has allowed some citizens to grow cannabis for personal use. Colombia has reversed its decades-long policy of aerial spraying against coca, the raw ingredient in cocaine.
Even in the United States, once the chief architect of the global war on drugs, four states permit the recreational marijuana sales. Other states have pro-legalization ballot measures pending. And a heroin epidemic has prompted the mayor of at least one city to propose establishing a supervised injection clinic.
It’s not as if the United Nations snack bar is going to start selling pot-laced gummy bears anytime soon. Still, a growing worldwide insurgency is confronting the war on drugs, with public health workers, the police and lawmakers questioning the wisdom of a decades-old global conventions meant to eradicate illegal substances and punish those who produce and consume them.
That fight will preoccupy the United Nations General Assembly this week, as world leaders debate whether punitive international drug laws should be eased to reflect the times. It is the first time in nearly two decades that countries will debate longstanding drug laws.
That debate comes at a time when countries large and small are rethinking their approaches to the drug issue, adopting policies that experts say breach current global conventions against drugs by legalizing some substances in some places — and lessening punishment for offenders in others.
“We are on the cusp of the collapse of the regime,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, an analyst at the Brookings Institution.
The conflict pits two equally improbable alliances against each other. On one side are the insurgents, led largely by several countries in Latin America that have begun to challenge conventional antidrug strategies or to legalize some drugs in hopes of blunting the violence that the drug wars have wrought. Canada’s health minister will make his country’s pitch to legalize marijuana, along with the presidents of Bolivia and Colombia, critics of the existing treaties.
On the other side are the staunch defenders of those conventions.
They are led by Russia and China, and they are joined by smaller countries with some of the strictest drug laws, including those that impose the death penalty, such as Singapore, Iran and Saudi Arabia. A push to prohibit the death penalty in drug cases is expected to be one of the most contentious items in the discussions this week.
The United States, once the world’s principal drug-law enforcer, is in the most awkward spot. It opposes overturning the relevant global treaties (there are three, the first dating to 1961). But it has also been put on notice for violating those treaties with initiatives that legalized recreational cannabis use in four states. That makes it hard for American officials to scold other countries for taking a less-than-prohibitionist stance against drugs.
William R. Brownfield, the top State Department official in charge of combating drug-trafficking, sought to strike a balance when he told reporters last month that the United States would, in effect, not oppose how other governments choose to deal with drug laws within their own borders. American officials have also argued that because federal law continues to prohibit recreational use of marijuana, and it is therefore not afoul of the global drug treaties.
“My view — my government’s view — is let’s establish some basic pillars: Defend the integrity of the conventions, accept the inherent discretion within those conventions, tolerance for governments exploring their own national policies, and a commitment to combating the transnational criminal organizations,” Mr. Brownfield said.
For years, international drug laws have been geared toward eliminating illegal substances — in 1998, the last time the United Nations took up the subject, a declaration stressed that the consumption of illicit “must not become accepted as a way of life” — and to punish those who produce and use them.
That approach has since come under sharp scrutiny, not just in public health and human rights quarters, but, increasingly, from law enforcement authorities and politicians who suggest it may have done more harm than good.
In the United States, the Obama administration has taken steps toward addressing what it considers unduly harsh prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Such sentences have also become an issue in this year’s American presidential race.
The three-day review of drug laws at the United Nations this week is expected to yield much less than reformers hope.
The drug treaties are not likely to be abrogated or renegotiated, largely because of the influence of countries like Russia (one of whose career diplomats runs the United Nations drugs office) and Egypt (one of whose envoys will lead this week’s General Assembly Special Session).
The meeting does, however, highlight how divided the world has become over the right approach to drug laws.
Inside the General Assembly hall, countries are expected to endorse a document, finalized after weeks of negotiations, that reaffirms the commitment to “promote a society free of drug abuse,” but also acknowledges public health concerns and recognizes “alternative or additional measures” to punishment. The document makes no mention of decriminalization.
Bernie Sanders, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, was moved to weighed in on the topic. Last week, he was among hundreds of people, and one of six senators, who signed an open letter to the United Nations secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon. The war on drugs had proved “disastrous for global health, security and human rights,” stated the letter, which expressed support for state and national governments around the world that had legalized marijuana.
The letter was endorsed by an unlikely alliance of politicians, business leaders and activists, including the billionaire investor Warren Buffett, the founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, Alicia Garza, Ernesto Zedillo, a former president of Mexico, and the musician Sting.
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