U.S.: Civil Rights, Health, Faith, Justice Groups Call On Obama To End Global Drug War

StopTheDrugWar.org(StopSign)

More than 225 civil rights, health, faith-based and other organizations sent a letter to President Obama Thursday calling on him to use an upcoming United Nations high-level session on global drug policies to push for a fundamental change in course away from criminalization.

The groups, which include the American Civil Liberties Union, AIDS United, LatinoJustice PRLDEF and #cut50, say that the current US position for the session "takes a short-term approach, stopping short of the crucial reforms called for by UN agencies and US allies, while failing to address new realities."

They want bolder stances from the administration in areas like human rights, public health and development, and for the US to promote initial steps the UN can take toward reforming international drug conventions to reflect moves in the US and elsewhere toward marijuana legalization.

"We believe a stronger US stance on these issues would leave a legacy in global drug policy that is better aligned to the direction you've steered domestic policy," the groups wrote.

The letter was submitted as the UN prepares for its highest level session on drug policy since 1998 – the "UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem," or UNGASS, scheduled for April 19-21 at UN headquarters in New York. US diplomats and drug and crime officials have played a central role in negotiations over the UNGASS Outcome Document, an official product of the meeting that will impact policy.

The new letter urges the administration to call on the UN to appoint an "Expert Advisory Group," whose mandate would be to study tensions faced by the international drug control regime today, and to recommend options for moving forward. Groups argue that the current US stance toward marijuana legalization and international treaties, which relies in part on continued federal prohibition, is "likely to face shrinking credibility internationally as legalization spreads to more states."

The UNGASS was called by the governments of Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia, countries that suffer disproportionately from the violence of the illicit drug trade. A growing number of voices from Latin America, including some heads of state, have noted the connection between drug prohibition and crime, in some cases calling for alternative policies like legalization of drugs to be considered.

"US agencies have played an important role promoting positive reforms like alternatives to incarceration and people-centered public health drug policies," said David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org, who coordinated the sign-on letter. "Unfortunately, the current US UNGASS stance avoids engaging with a number of contested human rights issues, such as the death penalty for nonviolent drug offenses, and punts on the obvious treaty questions that legalization raises.

"We think this is unfortunate at a time when real strides are being made in reforming our domestic policies, partly because of President Obama's vision for criminal justice reform," Borden said. "We think the administration has viable options available to take further productive steps on global drug policy too."

The Obama Administration has taken the stance that countries should be free to pursue different kinds of systems under the treaties – including legalization – but has also opposed tackling treaty reform at the UNGASS. A related UN body, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, is meeting in Vienna next week to make final preparations for the UNGASS.

Some other groups signing the new letter are PICO International, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Washington Office on Latin America, Institute of the Black World 21st Century, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Harm Reduction Coalition, Drug Policy Alliance and Housing Works.

The full text is linked from http://stopthedrugwar.org/global.

The last UNGASS, in 1998, used the slogan, "A Drug Free World. We Can Do It!" Since that time, four US states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis, as has the nation of Uruguay. Canada's prime minister has pledged to do so as well.

Many other countries have decriminalized possession of certain drugs or have implemented harm reduction measures like syringe exchange programs. While UN drug agencies have warned that legalization policies may violate the treaties, the push for reform doesn't appear to be slowing anytime soon.

Last year, a coalition of more than 100 organizations released a statement calling on nations to begin the process of revising the drug control treaties, and for human rights concerns to take precedence over drug control treaty obligations when the two are irreconcilably conflicted. That document is also online at http://stopthedrugwar.org/global.

StoptheDrugWar.org works for an end to drug prohibition worldwide, and an end to the "drug war" in its current form. "We believe that much of the harm commonly attributed to 'drugs' is really the result of placing drugs in a criminal environment," reads the organization's mission statement. "We believe the global drug war has fueled violence, civil instability and public health crises; and that the currently prevalent arrest- and punishment-based policies toward drugs are unjust."