Slipping by virtually unnoticed, the United States made a surprising move last week toward entirely ending the contentious and wholly ineffective War on Drugs.
With the approach of the first Special Session of the U.N. General Assembly to discuss international drug policy in nearly 18 years, Bill Brownfield, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, discussed the potential for an historic shift in U.S. drug policy with a panel on March 8th.
Seeking to return to a “greater focus on public health and healthcare as relates to the drug issue, rehabilitation, treatment, [and] education,” Brownfield described what will be “a pragmatic approach to reform … global drug policy.”
Despite the moniker Land of the Free, the U.S. recently fell under intense criticism after a number of reports noted the country houses the largest prison population on the planet — a fact President Obama reluctantly admitted last summer.
Should it follow through with decriminalization as Brownfield described, the U.S. government would be marking the first effort to weaken the now-massive prison-industrial machine — including the controversial, corrupt, private prison corporations that now dominate the criminal justice landscape.
“We will call for pragmatic and concrete criminal justice reform, areas such as alternatives to incarceration or drug courts, or sentencing reform,” Brownfield explained. “In other words, as President Obama has said many times publicly, to decriminalize much of basic behavior in drug consumption in order to focus scarce law enforcement resources on the greater challenge of the large transnational criminal organizations.
“We will propose greater focus on what we call new psychoactive substances. These are the new drugs … which in the 21st century the pharmaceutical industry can produce at a faster rate than governments or … the United Nations system can actually review and register.”
Asked whether countries deciding to move in the direction of Portugal, which decriminalized all drugs in a massive, successful effort to combat addiction, would be penalized for breaking established international narcotics guidelines, Brownfield stated the issue would not be for the U.S. government to decide. He explained wholesale reform of drug policy couldn’t possibly be applied in a one-size-fits-all format, as individual countries are dealing with problems specific to their needs.
As an example, Brownfield pointed to cannabis policy in the U.S.
“It is the position of the United States government, for example, that despite the fact that four of our states have voted to legalize the cultivation, production, sale, purchase, and consumption of cannabis, or marijuana, that we are still in compliance with our treaty obligations, because first, the federal law, national law, still proscribes and prohibits marijuana; and second, because the objective, as asserted by the states themselves, is still to reduce the harm caused by consumption [of] marijuana.
“Our argument is that at the end of the day, the issue is not precisely whether a government has chosen to decriminalize or not to decriminalize; it is whether the government is still working cooperatively to reduce the harm caused by the product.”
Several times, Brownfield emphasized the necessity for policy reform to hold to international narcotics conventions, but he also expressed optimism that “experimentation, adjustment, and modification” of policy would nonetheless be allowable.
Drug policy experts, activists, and countless others have decried the Drug War’s criminalization in reference to treatment of what is largely viewed as an epidemic of addiction.
“The world is a different place in 2016 than it was in 1959 or 1960,” Brownfield noted. “So, of course, policy changes. Opinions change. Focus and priority changes.”
Set to take place around five weeks from now, if the Ambassador’s plans are well-received, the UNGASS might produce the most positive reforms to now-anachronistic drug policies since they were imposed decades ago.
“At the end of the day, dangerous drugs are a danger to anyone — right or left; Northern Hemisphere, Southern Hemisphere; developing, developed; industrial, agrarian — it doesn’t matter. The harm is the same on the human being,” Brownfield asserted. “But we must process it through the realities of our planet today.”