Here's why the UN's Big Meeting on Drugs - UNGASS - Matters to You

February 24, 2016 - By James Carli

Have you ever wondered why ending the war on drugs isn’t as simple as passing a few laws in Congress? Well, it has to do with some pretty bad pieces of international law that tie the hands of national governments to policies that even they know kinda stink. Fortunately, there’s a coalition of really smart people working at the highest levels to untangle this really bad knot. Here’s what I mean…

This April 19 to 21, many of the world’s countries, together with human rights and advocacy organizations from around the world, will meet in New York at the United Nations to discuss global drug policy in an event called the “UNGASS,” which is UN-speak for United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs.

See, the reason so many drugs are harshly criminalized is because there are three international treaties – the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971, and the Convention Against the Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988 – that require countries who sign the treaty (including the United States, Canada, Mexico, and most of Europe), to “establish as a criminal offense” the “cultivation, production, extraction, possession, sale, distribution, purchase, and delivery” of several drugs and to “prosecute and punish,” “particularly by imprisonment,” individuals or groups who violate the terms of the treaties.

These treaties have thus established drug criminalization and the drug war as an “international norm,” or a commonly accepted international standard of behavior, which means that because they signed the treaties, governments have to pass national laws in line with the treaty or face damage being done to their reputation on the international stage. Because of a principle in international law called pacta sunt servanda, which is Latin for “agreements must be kept,” going against the treaty would, in theory, damage their “soft power,” their ability to use their reputation and influence to achieve their foreign policy goals, without having to rely on hard power threats of military force. And because countries don’t want to become known as not being good on their word when they sign treaties, they therefore enact the drug war at home.

For more than two years, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs, which are advocacy nonprofits), like my organization, the Drug Policy Alliance, and allies from around the world have been meeting with each other and with officials from several governments to get them to agree to ways to change or improve the three treaties.

The global campaign we’re all a part of is called Stop the Harm, referring to stopping the harm done by the war on drugs. And at April’s UNGASS in New York, we will spend a week in meetings championing for reform to end the failed drug war. It won’t end at UNGASS, but we’re hoping that we can get some pretty influential governments like the United States, Canada, Mexico, Colombia, and Switzerland to go on the record saying that the current status quo is pretty dumb, as it costs a lot of money and generates a lot of violence, bloodshed, and environmental damage for no demonstrable positive gains.

If you’re going to be in the New York area April 18 through 21, there are also a series of side events that you can be a part of, like SSDP’s art installations, and a series of protests and press conferences by International Families Against the Drug War, the Caravan for Peace, and more. Come out and join us in rolling back the failed drug war at its source!

James Carli is the development research coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance.

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