A rare United Nations session on drug policy is an opportunity to shift away from the failed war on drugs.
IN the coming weeks, Washington state’s homegrown guerrilla assault on federal drug policy will be on the international stage, as the United Nations holds its first special session on drug policy in nearly two decades.
The United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS), beginning Tuesday in New York City, was requested by Latin American leaders beleaguered by a failed drug war playing out within their borders. The last such session, in 1998, ended with a fantastical commitment to a completely drug-free planet by 2008.
This one should be rooted more in reality. Drug reformers don’t expect a complete redrawing of the rigid prohibitionist strategy, which was held together by a series of international treaties. But the United States should support a fundamental shift toward a more flexible and treatment-focused drug policy.
The U.S.’s moral standing as the world’s fiercest international enforcer has been eroded by a state-level rebellion against the dollars and lives wasted with marijuana prohibition. Washington and Colorado led; Oregon and Alaska followed; more states are expected to do so. Almost half of the U.S. population live in medical-marijuana states — all of them in violation of federal drug laws.
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The Obama administration’s tolerance for those experiments raises a legitimate question, said John Hudak, a Brookings Institution fellow who follows marijuana policy: Is the U.S. in violation of the international treaties it has so vigorously enforced?
“Either the U.S. is very carefully skirting the line or crossing the line,” said Hudak. “So flexibility is very important for the U.S.”
To be consistent, and to remain credible to voters at home, the U.S. should support the Latin American nations that are fatigued by prohibition. During the height of the cartel drug war in Mexico, from 2007 to 2014, at least 164,000 people were killed. For context, the death count of Iraqi and Afghan civilian in the same period is estimated at 103,000.
The logical approach is a shift toward a strategy that reduces demand for drugs, not just the supply.
Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program is a clear example. LEAD is a collaboration effort between police and human services to redirect people arrested for low-level drug crimes from jail to treatment, mental-health care, housing and job training. With research showing it reduces recidivism by about 60 percent, no wonder that cities from Santa Fe, N.M., to Albany, N.Y., have begun copying it.
The upcoming U.N. special session is a unique opportunity for Obama to display international leadership and a break from the status quo. His latest budget proposal flips the federal priorities on drug policy, recommending spending more on drug treatment and research than on interdiction and policing for the first time since the 1980s.