Society

With UN Reform Coming In 2016, U.S. Should View Drug Policy As A Public Health Issue

| by Will Hagle

In the United States, drugs should be treated as a public health problem rather than the law enforcement issue they’ve been since the War on Drugs began. In the context of global drug policy, the United States should respect the laws of other nations but lead by example through decriminalization.

Activists pushing for a reform in drug policy have been preaching those views for years, but a recent speech by Assistant Secretary of State for Drugs and Law Enforcement Bill Brownfield suggests American politicians are finally catching up to public demand. The speech, entitled “Trends in Global Drug Policy” and delivered on October 9 in the UN plaza in New York, outlines the U.S.’s approach to international drug law enforcement. Brownfield establishes “four pillars” of drug policy — respecting the existing UN drug control conventions, allowing for flexible interpretation of those conventions, tolerating the policies and law enforcement practices of other nations, and combating criminal drug trafficking organizations.

The speech was made in anticipation of the UN’s 2016 General Assembly Special Session on drugs, in which global policy about the trade regulation of drugs, as well as other factors such as legalization, will be openly discussed by all participating nations. With countries like the U.S. and Uruguay leading the way in terms of marijuana legalization, and other countries such as Portugal loosening drug policies since the last terms were agreed upon, it appears as if 2016 could be a landmark year for drug reform.

While specific legalities will be discussed during that convention, a key aspect of Brownfield’s recent speech is perhaps the most important factor in terms of the U.S.’s own policies moving forward. Several times throughout his speech and discussion, Brownfield notes that the public health issues surrounding drugs should be the foremost priority. He cites a recent conference between 34 governments in Guatemala City, in which agreements and middle ground were found despite differing approaches to drug policy. “All of those governments actually came together and said, right, we have some things we can agree upon; we have to focus more on public health and public health consequences. That’s good stuff. It’s new, and it’s something that everyone should be able to agree to. They said, second, that we have to provide some degree of balance or realism in our criminal justice approach. In other words, we should not lock people up for life - or, I guess, execute them - for what amount to minor drug-related charges. That makes pretty good sense to me. And third, we said, I think correctly, we have to remember that there are several thousand human beings out there who are prepared to kill, murder, blow up, shoot, or otherwise apply violence to people in order to make money trafficking drugs.” Brownfield’s statement, and personal opinion on the matters discussed, represent an important shift in the way drug policy is being discussed not just in the U.S., but in other nations around the world. 

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In responding to a question about the approach to stopping drug cartel violence in Mexico, Brownfield hit upon another key point. ‘“Drug policies and drug efforts take time. It took us decades, generations to get into this mess, and it’s going to take years to get out of it. Do not expect to see results a year or two years after a policy is implemented.” 

Marijuana has been legal in the United States for more than a year now, and the exact consequences have yet to be determined. Thus far, the federal government has done little to interfere with the states’ decision to experiment with legalization, despite the drug remaining illegal at the national level. Of course, a government projection estimates Washington and Colorado’s combined marijuana revenue at more than $800 million over the next few years.

If drugs are regulated by governments, criminal infractions against users of illicit substances are reduced or removed, criminal traffickers are penalized more heavily and drug users are treated under the jurisdiction of public health officials rather than law enforcement officials, the U.S. would be taking a much more logical, sensical approach to drugs. Brownfield’s statements suggest that they’re on the right track, but it will take time to correct decades of mistreatment of addicts and unnecessary criminalization of substances. 2016 will be a crucial year for the UN’s drug policy reformation, but the U.S. can start leading the way now. The full transcript of Brownfield's speech can be viewed here.