21 April 2016: Decriminalize all drugs, business and world leaders tell UN

Leaders of Global Commission on Drug Policy including Richard Branson and three ex-presidents say special session on drug policy was ‘fatally flawed’

Jessica Glenza at the United Nations

April 21, 2016


A British billionaire, three former presidents and a renowned Aids researcher have called for all drugs to be decriminalized at a press conference that was sharply critical of the United Nations’ latest drug policy agreement, adopted this week.

Leaders of the Global Commission on Drug Policy said the UN’s first special session on drugs in 18 years had failed to improve international narcotics policy, instead choosing to tweak its prohibition-oriented approach to drug regulation.

“The process was fatally flawed from the beginning,” said Richard Branson, the head of the Virgin Group, adding that it may “already be too late” to save the international drug law system.

This week’s United Nations general assembly special session, UNgass, clearly displayed the deep divisions between member states over narcotics: while a growing number of countries, including several states in the US, have moved towards decriminalizing or legalizing drugs, others continue to execute people convicted of drug crimes. Three UN conventions prohibit drug use that is not medical or scientific.

The meeting, held Tuesday through Thursday in New York City, was billed as a forum to debate drug laws, called for by Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala in 2014. All three countries suffered disproportionate violence from cartels controlling drug supplies to the north. In Mexico alone, the government estimates 164,000 people were the victims of homicide related to cartel violence between 2007 and 2014.

On Thursday, Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, announced plans to legalize marijuana-based medicines and proposed raising the amount of the drug that can be legally carried.

Activists for drug policy reform had already warned there was little hope that UNgass would provide a forum for serious debate of the issue. Activists criticized the process by which the meeting’s agreement – known as the “outcome document” – was drafted and negotiated. Some accused countries with repressive drug control policies, such as Russia and Egypt, of exerting undue influence on the outcome.

Meanwhile, provisions advocates hoped for, such as a ban on capital punishment for drug crimes and a reference to “harm reduction”, were left out.

Within the general assembly, the divide between countries over drug policy was in stark relief. Though the outcome document was immediately adopted after the session opened, many liberal nations called its conclusions “insufficient” and vowed to fight for reform at the next drug meeting, in 2019.

Over the past two decades, nations from Portugal to Uruguay have experimented with liberal drug regimes. Uruguay legalized marijuana in 2014; the states of Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana in 2012; and Portugal decriminalized drugs at the beginning of the millennium.

Meanwhile, a representative of Indonesia was booed when he called capital punishment “an important compenent” of drug policy, a statement backed by nations such as China. In another instance, a scientific panel organized by the Russian Federation veered away from widely accepted science when a Russian medical representative called methadone, used for opiate addiction treatment, and heroin the “same narcotic”.

“We are not expecting a lot from UNgass,” said former president of Switzerland Ruth Dreifuss. “In this sense, our provision is what the reality is: that the world community is not ready, is not willing, to have the change of politic that is absolutely necessary.”

Former Colombian president César Gaviria Trujillo told the small crowd at the Grand Hyatt in New York City that the UN’s aim of a “society free of drug abuse” is “unrealistic, totally naive, almost stupid”.

“That we are going to live in a world free of drugs, which will never happen, which is never happening,” said Trujillo, apparently frustrated and even emotional. “It is totally stupid – unreachable.”

Other commissioners that joined the chorus included former UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, former US Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker and former president of Mexico Ernesto Zedillo, among others.