THE BLOG

Ending the International Drug War

04/10/2014 11:17 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2014

The multinational band of drug policy journalists surrounding me at the recent United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs meetings in Vienna couldn't believe what they were hearing come out of the mouth of Yury Fedotov, executive director of the UN's Office of Drugs and Crime.

A few minutes earlier in his March 14 press conference, I had asked Fedotov what course international drug law will take if other nations follow places like Uruguay, Portugal and Colorado toward cannabis regulation. He replied without hesitation, "The UN will support member states in the course they decide to choose."

Since he leads the organization responsible for implementing the three dangerously outdated treaties that today comprise international drug law, Fedotov's forthcoming answer is genuinely astounding news. It means that as ordinary people and policymakers increasingly become convinced that the drug war itself is the main source of the worldwide drug problem, these treaties (known as the Conventions on Narcotic Drugs) will have to be significantly reformed.

Hence the astonishment of my colleagues from places like the Netherlands, Bolivia and Slovenia.

"Wow," whispered Derrick Bergman, the Dutch drug reform journalist sitting next to me at the press conference, and an advocate with the venerable European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (the group that brought me over to testify myself). "Game changer." Then he paused and shook his head in what looked like astonishment. "We might really see reform in 2016."

Bergman was referring to the General Assembly Special Session on Narcotic Drugs (known as UNGASS), being held in two years at the request of the Presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala. The session mandates an assessment of current international drug agreements.

The idea of the world body considering a reality-based drug policy still sounds as outlandish to most non-North American ears as it did in the U.S. when I started researching the topic just four years ago. Today, 58 percent of Americans support cannabis legalization (compared to 44 percent in 2011), two states have legalized adult social use, and at least two more (Oregon and Alaska) look poised to this year. We also now have 22 medical cannabis states in the U.S. and counting. More than a few folks I met at the Vienna meetings from places like Qatar and Indonesia, which still have the death penalty for drug possession, greeted Americans like me as liberators.

"I'm not even a Colorado voter," I confessed to a Jakartan doctor who is working on setting up harm reduction clinics as an alternative to draconian punishments.

Still, I wasn't personally surprised by Fedotov's encouraging acknowledgement that the world's people, essentially, will decide international policy. Seemed a bit obvious, if refreshing. As James Gierach, executive secretary of the non-governmental organization Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) put it after Fedotov's press conference, "The genie is out of the bottle. The people are screaming for change."

One reason Americans (and Latin Americans) should urgently support international drug policy reform is that existing treaties are clearly contravened by places like Colorado and Uruguay that have legalized cannabis for adult social use: The conventions only allow for medical use of cannabis. Another reason is America's prison population, thanks to drug war arrests of non-violent offenders, is the world's highest.

But the most compelling and urgent reason for change, as Milton Friedman put it in 1990, is that unenforceable prohibition of products that hundreds of millions of people want "creates obscene profits that finance the murderous tactics of drug lords." The UN itself estimates worldwide illegal drug economy profits at 400 billion dollars per year, or slightly more than 12,000 dollars per second. That's why thousands of people are killed in drug war violence every year: simple dollars and cents.

Dr. Diego Cánepa, a member of the Uruguayan delegation to the Vienna drug policy meetings, told attendees that corruption and money laundering were key reasons his nation decided to regulate a commercial cannabis market. "We researched every option and realized that prohibition is not the answer," he said. "It's more difficult to regulate an invisible market than a visible one."

Crime was a pervading theme during the UN meetings last week. A hearing on the topic at which I testified was packed. Both drug policy reform advocates and opponents agree that a broad swath of otherwise legitimate banks are being corrupted by drug trade-related money laundering.

In the U.S. landscape, this hit headlines in July of 2013, when HSBC Holdings, Europe's largest bank, settled with our Justice Department for 1.98 billion dollars, effectively admitting that it had enabled Latin American criminal organization to launder 680 billion dollars. That, in a sentence, sums up the effects of international drug policy since the first UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs went into effect in 1961.

Now, in no place more than the UN, words are one thing, action another. At the UNGASS summit in 2016, either the drug conventions will be amended to allow member states to regulate as they wish, or they won't. Let us hope that they will. If so, what might reform look like in black and white?

LEAP has a plan. Gierach's team has put together a detailed reform proposal based in part on the World Health Organization (WHO)'s rules for tobacco. The 69-year-old Gierach, a retired Illinois prosecutor, said that WHO policies have cut tobacco use in half "not by criminalizing tobacco, but by instituting policies that make people want to self-regulate."

The 36 page LEAP plan, which Gierach was pressing into every diplomatic palm in Vienna, "reinvests nations with the sovereignty to put in place drug policy that suits their needs," he said. Even the very "Functions of the Drug Control Board" section of the old treaties is reimagined. "Article 9 [of the LEAP treaty revisions] replaces costly drug seizure metrics with public health metrics like the number of people released from prison," he said.

LEAP needs only one nation to sign on to its reform proposal for it to trigger the UN's amendment process. Realistically, though, is the world body politic going to listen to a retired if dedicated American district attorney and change a 55-year-old body of law?

"They're going to listen to someone and make some kind of change," the white haired grandfather said. "I don't care if it's our proposal or if some nation takes most of what we're proposing and puts it in its own name. The truth about the drug war is out."

This is an exciting time to be investigating international drug policy, because scores of nations are on the fence. Opinions at the week-long UN drug commission meetings ranged from progressive to medieval.

The Ukrainian delegation, for example, said, "There is a need for a radical change" in existing drug conventions.

Iran's delegate, by contrast, proffered that, "the death penalty serves as a deterrent in drug trafficking."

The middle ground was staked out by UN drug policy chief Fedotov himself, no fan of legal regulation of cannabis. Trying to contextualize the two years of negotiations to come in advance of the vital UNGASS meetings, he spoke not of dismantling the three international drug conventions, but of "returning to their original spirit, focusing on health."

The gumbo of these conflicting ideas was reflected in the somewhat confused joint ministerial statement that emerged from last week's meetings. Trying to have it both ways, the statement said in one section that some nations are seeking "alternatives to conviction and punishment" in their drug policy and in another section that the world body "reaffirms its unwavering commitment to...supply reduction."

On paper at least, consensus has not yet been reached on what I know from four years of in-the-field drug policy research: That the drug war is at the root of the drug problem. The good news, as we learned in the U.S. in 2012, is that two years is plenty of time for drastic (and positive) drug policy changes to take place. And the political climate in the Vienna UN corridors felt a lot like that in the U.S. in 2011. In our case here in the States, once the truth about effective drug policy was finally being spoken, the people (of two states and counting) quickly decided to end the drug war.

If LEAP's model (or similar reform proposals) move forward and it comes down to a General Assembly vote in 2016, I believe a majority of nations will support the end of the international drug war by letting member nations set their own drug policy. So does Miguel Samper, Colombian Vice-Minister of Criminal Policy. Why? Because "The drug problem is different in each country and the response should be different," he said on March 17.

If we can take UNCND Chief Fedotov at his word, when enough nations follow our (and Uruguay's) successful drug policy reform lead, international law will follow. As a father and as a drug policy researcher, I can say without hesitation that this is the single most important policy decision we can make to ensure a safer world.

Doug Fine is the author of Hemp Bound, an examination of the resurgent industrial cannabis economy. Short films about Hemp Bound: dougfine.com Twitter: organiccowboy