The 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) is set to address the worldwide drug epidemic. More than 1,000 world leaders and activists sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calling for an end to the devastating war on drugs. “Humankind cannot afford a 21st-century drug policy as ineffective and counter-productive… The drug control regime that emerged during the last century,” the letter says, “has proven disastrous for global health, security and human rights. Focused overwhelmingly on criminalization and punishment, it created a vast illicit market that has enriched criminal organizations, corrupted governments, triggered explosive violence, distorted economic markets and undermined basic moral values.”
Ahead of the conference, President Obama announced his plan to spend $1.1 billion taxpayer dollars to implement a two-pronged program that tackles the American drug epidemic through expanded access to treatment and expanded state-level drug prevention centers. For those families suffering the devastating affects of addiction, the increased spending, and desperately needed facilities cannot come soon enough as current policies generally include jail time.
“If somebody has gone to jail for a non-violent drug offense and they are not getting treated and provided with some baseline of skills, and some hand holding when they are released they are going to get back into more trouble,” Obama explained. “The Justice Department is working very closely with our office of drug policy to find ways that we can improve at a federal level the re-entry programs and drug treatment.”
Oftentimes in the US, the slide into drug addiction begins with a simple accident or injury. Many doctors prescribe OxyContin to patients to cope with pain. Some patients develop a dependence on the highly addictive opioid, and then they turn to drug dealers when their prescriptions run out, prompting a downward spiral that often leads to incarceration, costing taxpayers millions of dollars and ripping families and communities apart.
In an attempt to address the growing epidemic, a pre-UN meeting was held last month in Vienna that added language proposing to address the factor of human rights associated with drug addiction. But supporters say the text could have been much stronger, as countries like Iran and China actually execute drug offenders and refuse to remove death penalty language from their laws.
Complicating the talks is the fact that currently 23 American states have already legalized small-amounts of recreational or medicinal cannabis.
“The Obama administration’s tolerance for those experiments raises a legitimate question,” said John Hudak, a Brookings Institution fellow. “Either the US is very carefully skirting the line or crossing the line,” said Hudak. “So flexibility is very important for the US.”
It’s important to note that President Obama has liberally used Executive Orders throughout his presidency, but has pardoned very few low-level drug offenders, something critics’ have argued must be modified before he leaves office in a few months.
For now, the world’s focus remains on criminalizing drug abuse. Experts who are attending the UN special conference say that approach has created a huge illegal market that has enriched criminal organizations, corrupted governments, triggered explosive violence, skewed economic markets and, most alarmingly, funded terrorism.
The US has been fighting the war on drugs for almost a half a century. The epidemic rose to prominence in 1969 with President Richard Nixon’s Operation Intercept. Skeptics say it’s impossible to wage a war on a substance. While a solution remains elusive, the latest twist may force world leaders to solve the age-old drug war dilemma as terrorists have learned the drug-trade is highly profitable in financing global terrorism.
According to the National Security Archive, Operation Intercept “was plotted in secret to produce an unprecedented slow-down of all plane, truck, car and foot traffic – legitimate or not – flowing from Mexico into the southern United States. In order to achieve their goals, the president’s top enforcement advisors deployed thousands of extra Border, Customs and Immigration agents along the 2,000-mile line that separates the countries, from just north of Tijuana to Brownsville, Texas. Once in place, the agents were charged with stopping and inspecting anything that moved. Where traditionally U.S. officials would wave nineteen out of twenty vehicles through the lines, now each and every cargo was subjected to a thorough search, creating an instant nightmare for millions of legal commuters and commercial traders.”
While that may seem harsh, activists are hopeful the world will look at Portugal, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, and other Latin American countries that have undertaken decriminalization reforms. Their innovative trials in drug regulation, including Switzerland’s national health plan that supports heroin-assisted treatment, appears to be working. Even Mexico is experimenting with legalization of medicinal marijuana to counter the real war that has claimed more than 200,000.
But, it’s the profits from illegal drugs that make there way to terrorists coffers that is most alarming. With terrorism on the rise, it is in the world’s interest to combat the illicit market to protect the millions of lives affected by drugs.
According to the 2015 World Drug Report from UN Office on Drugs and Crime:
246 million- The approximate number of people who used illicit drugs in 2013, or 5 per cent of everyone aged 15 to 64
27 million- The approximate number of “problem users” worldwide, half of whom inject drugs
1.7 million- The approximate number of people with HIV who inject drugs
187,100- The approximate number of drug-related deaths worldwide
170 percent- The approximate increase in heroin-related deaths in the U.S. from 2010-2013
3- The approximate number of times more likely men are than women to use cannabis, cocaine and amphetamines (women are more likely to misuse prescription opioids and tranquilizers)
Since change to US laws relating to drug trafficking must emanate from Congress, the question is whether the President’s announced plan is just another flashy DC program that throws money at an issue but offers no real expectation of resolution.