Comment by Joep Oomen, Encod
Thanks to Richard Branson, we know now that the staff members of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime have been involved in writing a paper that calls on member states to decriminalise use of drugs and possession for personal use. On Monday 19 October, Branson published an internal briefing of UNODC which states that ‘decriminalising drug use and possession for personal consumption is consistent with international drug control conventions and may be required to meet obligations under international human rights law.’
The note, which should have been made public that same day at a Conference in Malaysia, was withdrawn after Sir Richard leaked it, apparently following pressure by the US government. That doesn’t matter though. The sole fact that this document has been circulating inside UNODC shows that the people working on behalf of the global community to find an answer to the drug problem are finally ready to embrace the fact that a significant part of the population is not going to give up using drugs just because they are illegal.
However, it was not the document itself, but the interpretation given to it by Branson and many others that made the fuzz. Some commentators already jumped to the conclusion that UN had called for drug legalization, others claimed that it had been the efforts of NGO lobbyists that had established a definitive reversal inside the UN bureaucracy.
Although it is understandable that people are desperate to see some result in a struggle to end one of the most silly inventions in human history, it is a bit too early to claim victory, let alone give out awards.
One needs to read the document well in order to understand its true value. In its essence, it does nothing else than confirm what is written in the three international drug control conventions, which have the “health and welfare of mankind” as its overarching concern.
These conventions impose a dual drug control obligation on UN member states: “to ensure the availability of controlled substances for medical and scientific ends while preventing the illicit production of, trafficking in and abuse of such substances.“
The basis of international drug prohibition, the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 exclusively describes as ‘punishable offenses … the extraction, preparation, possession, offering, offering for sale, distribution, purchase, sale, delivery, brokerage, dispatch, transport, importation and exportation of drugs’, but it does not mention use.
In fact, the UN conventions do not oblige countries to criminalise drugs at all. According to Article 2, chapter 5b) of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs countries shall prohibit the production, manufacture, export and import of, trade in, possession or use of drugs if in their opinion the prevailing conditions render it the most appropriate means of protecting the public health and welfare. This ‘if’ has been used by the government of the Netherlands to allow the possession and sale of cannabis to consumers in the 1970s, and by the government of Uruguay to legalise the entire chain in 2012.
The UNODC statement on the need to decriminalise use of drugs is not new. When he took office as executive director in 2010, Yury Fedotov said that drug use is a health problem, not a crime, and drug users need treatment, not punishment. What’s new in the current document is that possession of drugs for personal use has now been put in the same category, which is a logical consequence of the fact that it is rather difficult to consume without possessing.
The true harms related to drugs are caused by the fact that they are produced and distributed in an illegal environment. Also when drug use and possession for personal use are decriminalised, people will continue to be killed, tortured, imprisoned and ruined because of the war on drugs.
In Italy drug use has been decriminalised since 1993. It has not stopped Italian police from arresting people for cultivating and/or possessing a minor amount of illegal drugs, including cannabis. In the past 7 years, at least three people died during or following this arrest.
In Portugal drug use and possession of minor quantities of drugs was decriminalised in 2002. Still some Portuguese drug users continue prostituting themselves in order to buy drugs, while others continue suffering from chronic pains and using all kind of chemical drugs because their doctor won’t prescribe them cannabis.
To an adult human being living in the 19th Century, the whole idea that he/she would need to ask permission from the state before putting a substance into his body would seem absurd. The fact that governments have attributed the power to decide this to the UN bureaucracy 55 years ago says more about them then about drugs.
With this document, the UNODC has made clear its own irrelevance to the drugs debate.
Decisions on drug use need to be made by the people who take them, decisions on drug policies need to be made by local authorities all according to their own political cultural and social traditions.
Even if his action has contributed to nothing else than a growing awareness of this reality, Sir Richard Branson may be satisfied.Republish