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UN Groups Call for International Drug Decriminalization

Mar 13, 2019

UN Groups Call for International Drug Decriminalization

Leo Bear-McGuinness
Science Writer
@LeoMcBear

One of the oldest and most influential groups in the United Nations has endorsed the decriminalization of drug possession and use. 

In its January session, the Chief Executives Board of the UN (CEB), which represents 31 UN agencies including the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), recommended the UN “promote alternatives to conviction and punishment in appropriate cases, including the decriminalization of drug possession for personal use.”

The conclusion may be a significant moment for the UN’s drug policies. As the UNODC was founded in part to work “with member states to strengthen the rule of law, promote stable and viable criminal justice systems,” its new stance is a sizeable shift. Now, with its advocacy for drug decriminalization, the drugs office and the 30 other agencies that comprise the CEB may push the UN to promote more health-based, effective drug policies. 

However, this progressive stance still contrasts with the drug policies by other UN groups, such as the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), which recently called on all governments to adhere to the international drug conventions that prohibit cannabis. In that report, the authors warned of the harm cannabis can do to users’ physical and mental health and criticized poorly regulated medical cannabis programmes, which they state can increase the dangerous recreational use of the drug. 

But compared to the conclusions of 31 UN agencies, the advice of the INCB holds less sway. The authority of the CEB is also bolstered by the other calls for drug reform from World Health Organization groups and the drug policy record of the UN’s current secretary general, António Guterres, who oversaw Portugal’s successful era of drug decriminalization. 

Similar to those Portuguese policies, the CEB’s statement frames the current state of international drug use in the context of public health and human rights. The authors commit to supporting “the development and implementation of policies that put people, health, and human rights at the centre, by providing… care based upon prevention, treatment and support.”

The group’s other policies include calling for universal health care coverage for substance use disorders, addressing prison overcrowding due to drug convictions, and investing in drug harm reduction programs which help reduce HIV infection rates. 

Time will tell if this combined call for action will be implemented. But the comments have come at an opportune moment. From March 14th-22nd, nearly 2,000 participants from UN member states, parliaments, and inter-governmental organizations will convene for the Commission on Narcotic Drug’s 62nd session in Vienna, Austria. As the meetings can often precede new drug policies, drug decriminalisation may be more likely than not. 

 

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