A Global Cold War on Drugs by Alexander Kwasniewski

Flagpoles line the sidewalk outside the United Nations General Assembly and towering Secretariat building at U.N. headquaters on Manhattan's East Side in New York, May 21, 1991. The flags are changed twice a year--there are 159 members now, and there's room for 10 more poles. (AP Photo/Rick Maiman)

A Global Cold War on Drugs

The global drug regime must evolve its approach to the war on drugs or risk the same fate as communism, collapsing from inertia.

Flagpoles line the sidewalk outside the United Nations General Assembly and towering Secretariat building at U.N. headquaters on Manhattan's East Side in New York, May 21, 1991. The flags are changed twice a year--there are 159 members now, and there's room for 10 more poles. (AP Photo/Rick Maiman)

Turn rhetoric into action.

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From April 19–21, global leaders will meet for the first time in 18 years to debate global drug policy at the U.N. General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem in New York. As soon as this week, the 59th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs will have the opportunity to decide whether the U.N. session will truly be “special” in achieving tangible results – or not.

If it is special in bringing strong outputs based on reality, the global regime will incorporate human rights and public health into current drug policies. Weak and blurred outputs would mean that the same regime has proved unable to adapt itself to the changing world and is doomed to collapse.

The special session on drugs is gathering at the request of three Latin American countries that are suffering from the war on drugs: In Mexico alone, the number of homicides related to the war on drugs exceeds the number of casualties of the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan combined. And yet, all around the world, we see results of the dysfunctional drug control regime: “Illegal drugs” were never as available or cheap or used as much as they are today.

The war on drugs is not only a problem for developing countries. To rely on tough prohibition is far too expensive even for the wealthiest nations. As President Obama recently noted, the war on drugs has been “very unproductive.” Indeed, it is causing even more crime than it seeks to prevent and diverts limited law enforcement resources from urgent issues, no matter whether the country is wealthy or not. Looking back, we can see our current situation is promising: While President Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in 1969, and President Reagan further expanded drug control measures outside the US, the current U.S. commander-in-chief clearly understands that this war should have ended long ago. Now we need to see that this rhetoric is followed by energetic action.

So far, we have seen minimal amounts of progressive language in the working versions of the output document to be debated and adopted at the U.N. special session on drugs. Interestingly, those countries experimenting most intensively with different drug control regimes are silent on the conflict between their progress and the current structure and interpretations of the U.N. conventions on drugs.

This applies, first of all, to the U.S., with four of its states and even its capital city legalizing recreational marijuana – the most widespread illegal drug – and with another four to nine states expected to do so in 2016. Make no mistake: The global drug policy is the responsibility of the whole global community. However, the U.S. is the only superpower to have invented, promoted and globally exported the war on drugs.

Observing the indecision, we feel a kind of deja vu. We both spent part of our lives in “real socialism” – a totalitarian regime, fighting its own people. Communist parties used to hold “general conventions” every five years or so, where the communist leaders agreed unanimously that the failures of “communism/real socialism” happened because there was not enough enthusiasm for it among the people and thus demanded … yes, more of it! In the 1980s, the communist leaders hid themselves from the reality of the total economic and technological failure that was obvious to everyone, including them, allowing only “constructive” criticism, and as a result, unanimously voted for the same resolutions, declarations and commitments as usual – until the inert regime collapsed in the outburst of revolutions of 1989. Evolution was suppressed; revolution was the inevitable consequence.

History repeats itself: We saw the unanimous declaration of the U.N. special session in 1998 – a commitment to achieving a “drug-free world” by 2008. That did not happen in 2008 (or any later, and never before). However, this failure has never been mentioned in any of the U.N. documents on drugs to date. And since 2008, we have been hearing calls for “more of the same” from the U.N., and only occasional – and thus, insufficient – courage to describe the situation clearly and to demand appropriate measures.

We worry that by being unresponsive and inflexible, we risk the global drug control system moving to the edge of the precipice over which communism vanished a quarter of a century ago.

We need to come back to the origins of the current drug control regime: the protection of human well-being. We agree with the U.S., the EU and its member states and others: There is no need to abolish the U.N. treaties on drugs – they served well in their time and have to stay as the foundation of the whole system. However, if we demand “more of the same” from the countries and allow only “constructive” criticism again, if we again vote unanimously for weak formulations that hide from the reality of the 21st century, we are not only deeply disappointing those who in their despair asked for a special summit at the highest U.N. level – we risk the very existence of the international drug control regime, as increasing numbers of states would be deviating from it.

As we believe international drug control has a much more legitimate and more forthright raison d’etre than totalitarian communism ever had, we deeply wish to invite all the member states in Vienna and New York: This spring make a change! Promote the evolution of the global drug control regime and prevent the revolution; if for nothing else, then because not all revolutions are velvet – some just cause yet more bloodshed, and there has already been enough unnecessary suffering.

  • Svatopluk Nemecek

    Svatopluk Nemecek is the minister of health of the Czech Republic.

  • Alexander Kwasniewski

    Alexander Kwasniewski, former president of Poland, is commissioner of the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

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