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UN 'shadow report' blasts drug war as 'failure'

earthAn international network of non-governmental organizations has submitted a "shadow report" to the United Nations, calling the war on drugs a "spectacular failure"—and calling on the world's governments to reconsider it. The report takes heart from the growing official tolerance of cannabis in several countries around the world, but warns of escalating and horrific repression in the name of drug enforcement in several others. Will the UN take heed when it revisits the question of drug policy in 2019?

The International Drug Policy Consortium, a global coalition of some 170 NGOs, has released a "Civil Society Shadow Report" documenting how the UN's own goal, officially adopted in 2009, to "eliminate or reduce significantly illegal drugs markets" has been "spectacularly missed"—but has instead led to human rights abuses all over the world. The report urges world leaders to adopt a new, more tolerant and realistic policy when the UN revisits the question at the 10-year mark next March.

The IDPC report, entitled Taking Stock: A Decade of Drug Policy, crunches the United Nations' own data, and complements it with academic research as well as field reports and analysis from civil society groups. It notes that the role of civil society in the design, implementation and evaluation of global drug policy was recognized in the UN's 2009 Political Declaration and Plan of Action on drugs, as well as in the Outcome Document of the 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.

The report states that the targets set in the 2009 Declaration "have not been achieved, and in many cases have resulted in counterproductive policies." The report also emphasizes that the UN's official analyses have overlooked key points. "Focusing exclusively on measuring the scale of the illegal drug market is clearly not enough to understand the impact of drug policy on the key UN Charter commitments to health, human rights, development, peace and security."


Surprise: prohibition, eradication counter-productive

Article 36 of the 2009 Political Declaration included two "targets." The first was to: "Eliminate or reduce significantly and measurably the illicit cultivation of opium poppy, coca bush and cannabis plant."

The Shadow Report finds that data from the UN's own Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) "shows no reduction in the global scale of cultivation of opium, coca and cannabis between 2009 and 2018. Over this period, cultivation has in fact increased by 130% for opium poppy and by 34% for coca bush. As for cannabis, although recent global estimates are unavailable, the UNODC concluded that cultivation was reported in 145 countries in the period 2010-2016, with no sign of reduction."

The UNODC's 2009 World Drug Report estimated that between 200,000 and 641,800 hectares around the world were under cannabis cultivation. While the UNODC has not updated its estimate for total hectares under cultivation since then, the 145 countries where cannabis is produced represent 94% of the world's total population.

The second target of the 2009 Declaration was to: "Eliminate or reduce significantly and measurably the illicit demand for narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances; and drug related health and social risks."

The Shadow Report similarly finds no progress—in fact, just the reverse: "The overall number of people aged 15 to 64 who used drugs at least once in 2016 is estimated at 275 million, representing a 31% increase since 2011. The main drug of choice remains cannabis, followed by opioids, and amphetamines for which consumption has increased by 136% since 2011."


Human rights implications 
And not only has the eradicationist approach not worked, but it has had a grave impact in other areas—mot notably human rights. "Over the past decade, overly punitive drug policies focusing on eradicating the illegal drug market have been associated with wide-ranging human rights violations," the Shadow Report finds. "These abuses have had dire implications on the lives of marginalized people and communities worldwide."

The most obvious impact has been on the "right to life." At least 3,940 people were executed for a drug offense over the past decade, with 33 jurisdictions worldwide retaining the death penalty for drug crimes.

There are signs of hope here—since 2009, countries including India, Iran, Malaysia and Thailand "have taken steps to reduce or eliminate the use of capital punishment for drug offenses." But others are moving to reinstate the practice, with such legislation pending in Bangladesh, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

The report especially notes the "recent escalation of punitive drug policies in South and South East Asia." It estimates that President Rodrigo Duterte's draconian crackdown in the Philippines has now resulted in the extrajudicial killings of over 27,000 people since he took office in June 2016.

Other countries in the region are emulating Duterte's example. In Bangladesh, at least 200 people were killed at the hands of the police between May and July 2018.

Then there's the use of torture. The report especially calls out Indonesia and Russia for using beatings and other torture to extract confessions or information from drug suspects. The report emphasizes that the prohibition against such methods in the UN Convention Against Torture is "absolute and non-derogable, even in time of public emergency."

The report also names Russia for use of arbitrary arrests and planted evidence against the drug suspects—and notes one case (not the only one) in which such methods have been used for purposes of political repression. In 2013, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that Russian anti-corruption campaigner Denis Mateev had been falsely imprisoned on a drug charge.

Mexico is named as a country where women arrested on drug charges are routinely coerced into sexual favors in return for their release.

Arbitrary detentions are especially fast on the rise in South and Southeast Asia. In Cambodia, the new "drug war" launched in January 2017 has resulted in an 80% increase in arrests. In Bangladesh, more than 25,000 people were arrested in anti-drug sweeps between May and June 2018.

In countries such as Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador and Mexico, pre-trial detention is mandatory for all drug suspects—in defiance of recommendations from the Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions.

Rejecting a 'drug-free world'
The Shadow Report portrays these abuses as the bitter fruit of the approach summed up in the UNGASS slogan adopted in 1998: "A drug-free world, we can do it." This was unveiled along with the SCOPE plan—the Strategy for Coca and Opium Poppy Elimination by 2008. Supported by the USA, the SCOPE plan was met with strong criticism from NGOs and civil society groups at the time, which ultimately prevented it from being formally adopted by the UNGASS.

However, some of its language was included in the 1998 Political Declaration, especially in paragraph 19, which called for "eliminating or reducing significantly" illicit cultivation of opium, coca and cannabis over the next decade.

This language was re-incorporated in 2009. Next year, the General Assembly will have the opportunity to rethink it.

The Shadow Report recommends that the UN should consider "adopting more meaningful goals and targets" in line with international human rights commitments and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development—and "move away from targets seeking to eliminate the illegal drug market." The UN Sustainable Development Goals include the elimination of poverty and hunger by 2030, as well as guaranteeing good health, quality education and gender equality for all world citizens.

The report especially names the International Narcotics Control Board, "considered as the most conservative UN drug control body," as pushing policies that seek to "eliminate" illegal drugs without regard for their human rights impact.

But one crack in the dogmatic edifice has appeared—a "noticeable difference of tone on medicinal cannabis." As recently as 2013, the INCB had warned that medical cannabis initiatives could prove to be "backdoor legalization." But in May 2018, the INCB held a meeting with civil society delegates "to discuss the medical and non-medical uses of cannabis."

Another sign of hope is seen in Bolivia, which saw militarized coca eradication campaigns from 1980s through the early 2000s. Since 2006, Bolivia has shifted its strategy to "expand and protect the rights of indigenous coca growers." In 2010, the government implemented a Community Control Support Program, based on shared responsibility and respect for human rights. The 2017 General Coca Law further differentiated coca from cocaine, decriminalizing coca cultivation with the hope of "reducing the stigma." This has actually resulted in a reduction in illegal cultivation via a development strategy "seeking to address affeced communities' basic needs and by limiting repression."

Costa Rica is also praised for a 2013 reform aimed at addressing a soaring incarceration rate. In recognition that women are often coerced into trafficking, prison terms for women convicted of drug crimes were slashed from 8-20 years to 3-8 years.

The cannabis contradiction
The Shadow Report sees cannabis as "one of the greatest disconnects between contemporary reality and the UN's 2019 drug policy targets." While UN drug control treaties place cannabis under the strictest of the official "schedules," it remains "by far the world's most widely used illegal drug. Instead of persisting with efforts to ban cannabis markets, an increasing number of jurisdictions are choosing to provide for legal, regulated access to cannabis for adults for non-medical purposes."

Especially named, of course, are Uruguay, Canada, and states in the USA that have actually legalized. But various European countries have followed the Netherlands into a more relaxed policy.

Progress is also noted in the Caribbean, where Jamaica already allows for cannabis use in religious ceremonies. St Vincent and the Grenadines is about to adopt a similar law. A recent report of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Regional Commission on Marijuana recommends that member states move away from a prohibitionist regime that has proven to be ineffective as well as unjust, having "caused more harm than it sought to prevent."

The Shadow Report finds that the so-called "Vienna consensus" (named for the Austrian city that is home of the UNODC and INCB) is "fractured," and the "starkly divergent approaches to cannabis are among the key reasons why." Even as the Vienna-based bodies urge a hardline approach, the UN's World Health Organization is studying the medical applications of cannabis—a potential challenge to its Schedule I status.

Even if consensus is not reached on rescheduling or descheduling cannabis, UN member nations may invoke a "unilateral procedure" to opt out of treaty provisions in light of new evidence or circumstances—as Bolivia has now done with regard to coca. This procedure is provided for under Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.

Recommendations for 2019
The report closes by urging that as the UN revisits the drug policy question next year, "member states should meaningfully reflect upon the impacts of drug control" on the United Nations' own stated goals for the coming generation.

The text calls upon the UN to "adopt drug policies and strategies that actively contribute to advancing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, especially for those most marginalized and vulnerable. Global drug policy debates going forward should reflect the realities of drug policies on the ground, both positive and negative, and discuss constructively the resulting tensions with the UN drug control treaties and any human rights concerns associated with drug control efforts... UN member states should end punitive drug control approaches and put people and communities first. This includes promoting and facilitating the participation of civil society and affected communities in all aspects of the design, implementation, evaluation and monitoring of drug policies."

One of the lead contributors to the Shadow Report is former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, who has emerged as an outspoken critic of the global prohibition regime. In her introduction, she writes that in spite of this regime, “consumption and illegal trafficking of drugs have reached record levels,”

But she concludes optimistically: "I am certain that this Civil Society Shadow Report will greatly contribute to the global drug control debates and ensure that the coming decade will be better embedded in the international community's priorities of human rights, development, peace and security."

Cross-post to Cannabis Now

 

 

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