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Dispatch from Vienna: United Nations Forum on International Drug Policy

Graham Boyd,
Drug Law Reform Project
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July 7, 2008

As I head to Vienna for a historic U.N. meeting on drug policy, I find myself reflecting on the pervasive influence of the United States on drug laws around the globe. The news of today, and of any given day, is permeated with tragedies and dramas that exist only because we, in the United States, have convinced ourselves and much of the world that prison and black markets are the best solutions to the human urge to ingest substances, despite (or perhaps because of) their powerful ability to alter brain chemistry.

Walking down the boarding ramp for my flight on Swiss Air, an array of Swiss newspapers faces me. From each cover, the face of Ingrid Betancourt stares out, her smile celebrating newfound freedom and her worried eyes betraying six years of brutal captivity at the hands of FARC, a Colombia guerilla group funded by cocaine sales and hostage ransom. The story of her rescue is the stuff of a fine spy novel; the embrace of her children, heart-warming; but behind it all lies a story of drugs — the consumption of cocaine, the war on those who use, sell and produce it, and a complex web of violence, destruction, corruption and destroyed lives that follow ineluctably from this endless war.

In other cocaine-related news of the day, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is in trouble. No, he is not yet another politician to be accused of using drugs. Rather, he was outed as being soft-on-crime, an allegation that can be just as lethal to political ambitions. Mayor Newsom’s gubernatorial ambitions have faltered following the revelation that the city has returned a handful of juvenile drug sellers to their native Honduras rather than sending them to prison and then deporting them. Newsom quickly apologized for failing to incarcerate children — at least when sale of (presumably minor amounts of) drugs is involved.

Much of the demand for cocaine comes, of course, from the United States. This isn’t really news, but it’s fascinating to see that researchers from the World Health Organization (WHO) have found that the United States has both the highest consumption of cocaine as well as some of the most punitive laws imposed on those who use or sell the drug. The WHO researchers concluded:

The use of drugs seems to be a feature of more affluent countries.

The United States, which has been driving much of the world’s drug research and drug policy agenda, stands out with higher levels of use of alcohol, cocaine, and cannabis, despite punitive illegal drug policies, as well as (in many U.S. states), a higher minimum legal alcohol drinking age than many comparable developed countries.

The Netherlands, with a less criminally punitive approach to cannabis use than the U.S., has experienced lower levels of use, particularly among younger adults.

The limitations of punitive drug policies principally concerned with supply-side enforcement and incarceration could not be clearer. The time has come for the international community to fully recognize that a drug free world is presently beyond reach and to focus on minimizing the dangers that drugs pose to at-risk individuals and society at large — an approach that has proven both effective and better aligned with international human rights and public safety mandates. The ACLU’s statement to the U.N. offers additional information and detailed recommendations.

With thoughts of Betancourt, Honduran children and a failed U.S. drug policy that drives a global market for drugs, I’ll be meeting with NGO leaders from around the world. Some will argue for more of the same, but many of us will be urging a new approach.

I’ll report tomorrow on the first day of the conference.

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