Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Global drug reform in 2012

Post by Dr Alex Wodak, AM

That was the year that was: global drug law reform in 2012

In 1912 the International Opium Conference met in The Hague.  This meeting marked the beginning of the international drug control system which still prevails. But one hundred years after the birth of this system, 2012 was a watershed year for global drug law reform. It seemed to mark the beginning of the end of global drug prohibition. The case for global drug prohibition is now beginning to collapse. Unprecedented pressure is being applied in an increasing number of countries.

For the first time ever in the history of the international drug treaties, a country withdrew from a drug treaty. Despite opposition from the USA and some other countries, Bolivia announced its intention to withdraw from the 1961 Single Convention on 30 June 2011. The withdrawal came into effect on 1 January 2012. But Bolivia is re-acceding to the Single Convention minus some sections of the treaty it objects to. Bolivia’s reservation concerns the ban on coca leaf and its traditional uses. Bolivia had earlier attempted unsuccessfully to delete the Single Convention’s obligation that ‘coca leaf chewing must be abolished’ (Article 49). Bolivia’s new constitution in 2009 acknowledged respect for chewing coca leaf as part of its national patrimony. Thus Bolivia’s commitment to the Single convention and its national constitution were irreconcilable. Bolivia’s proposal to re-accede was opposed by a number of countries, including the United States. Bolivia will still be bound to not export coca leaf after the process of re-acceding has been completed.

The inclusion of references to coca leaf was controversial when the Single Convention was first negotiated. An understanding that these references would be reviewed after 25 years was never acted on. The human rights of indigenous peoples are somewhat more respected now than at the time the Single Convention was first negotiated. Indigenous people in South America are thought to have chewed coca leaf for at least hundreds of years. Bolivia and some other South American countries with substantial populations of indigenous peoples have resented the prohibition of the Single Convention extending to coca leaf. There is no evidence that chewing the coca leaf is harmful. President Evo Morales is the first indigenous person to become President of his country (and the first indigenous person to become President of any South American country). The withdrawal from the Single Convention had been approved by the Bolivian legislature. Bolivia had followed the procedures laid down in the Single Convention in this process. The event demonstrates that the treaties are now out of date.

Drug law reform was often discussed in Latin America in 2012. The Presidents of several Latin American countries began to publicly acknowledge the comprehensive failure of current policy and the need to consider alternatives which had until recently been excluded even from consideration. Critical comments about the futility of drug prohibition first came from retired Presidents. Then serving Presidents began to repeat the same perspective.

Leaders of more than 35 countries met at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, on 14-15 April. In the lead up to this meeting, the President of the USA dispatched his Homeland Secretary and Vice President Biden to separately visit half a dozen Latin American countries in unsuccessful attempts to dissuade discussion of major drug law reform. Eventually President Obama was forced to concede (in a Presidential election year!) that discussion of legalization was ‘entirely legitimate’ although he emphasized the USA would never countenance this option. As the host country of the meeting, President Santos of Colombia was able to insist that drug policy was included in the agenda (despite opposition from President Obama).  There was overwhelming support at the Summit for the notion that the War on Drugs had failed and that a new approach was indeed needed. The meeting resolved to invite the Organisation of American States to identify policy options for consideration. Meanwhile several Latin American countries have begun to reduce the penalties for personal possession and use of illicit drugs. In some countries, criminal sanctions have been replaced by civil sanctions. 

On 20 June, President Jose Mujica referred a bill to Uruguay’s legislature outlining a plan to tax and regulate cannabis. Uruguay thus became the first country in the world to begin the process of legalizing cannabis.  At the beginning of 2013, this process was still underway.

The recent experience of severe and uncontrollable violence in Mexico precipitated by a major national effort to stop drug trafficking influenced many other countries in Latin America. President Felipe Calderon declared a War on Drugs soon after assuming office in December 2006. Drug traffickers, police and the army had murdered about 60,000 Mexicans by the time President Calderon left office at the end of November 2012. Kidnapping and extortion had also soared. Seared by this experience, President Calderon near the end of his term in office called for a drug policy consistent with ‘market mechanisms’, a phrase generally assumed to be a euphemism for legalization. At the 2012 Presidential elections in Mexico, President Calderon’s party was badly beaten into third place with many observers attributing this result, at least in part, to Calderon’s ‘War on Drugs’. President Calderon’s successor announced during the election campaign that, if elected, he would not continue the War on Drugs approach.

History was also made in the USA. Ballot initiatives in Colorado and Washington states in the USA on 6 November included a proposal to tax and regulate cannabis in a manner similar to tobacco and alcohol. A majority (about 55%) of voters supported these initiatives in both states (although a similar ballot proposal in Oregon was defeated). As one observer commented ‘the context of the Colorado and Washington ballot victories is that there is no context’. The Colorado and Washington ballot initiatives were the first time in the world where a majority of voters had supported the regulation of a prohibited drug. This ballot initiative attracted more voters in Colorado than Barak Obama had in running for President in that state. These ballot initiatives breach Federal law and national commitments to international drug treaties (1961, 1988). In the US system, as in other federations, in the event of any conflict Federal laws trump state laws. Therefore, it is likely that the ballot decisions will be challenged and may eventually end up before the US Supreme Court. However, the votes in Colorado and Washington states on cannabis regulation are likely to be followed in other states in the coming years.  These votes in 2012 undoubtedly represent a milestone in the unraveling of drug prohibition. President Obama has commented on the outcomes of the Colorado and Washington votes noting that ‘he has bigger fish to fry’. Ron Paul, who came third in the Republican race for presidential candidate, argued explicitly that the War on Drugs had failed and that the US had to legalize drugs. He was often cheered when making these comments. This is the first time that such a high ranked aspirant for President of the USA has argued for major drug law reform. At the beginning of 2013, medicinal cannabis was available in 18 states (plus Washington DC) covering more than 40% of the national population. There were victories for medicinal cannabis in several state ballot initiatives in the November elections. Challengers supporting drug law reform defeated incumbents supporting drug prohibition in primary elections in Texas and Oregon. These victories attracted some attention as previously candidates in US elections supporting drug law reform have been decisively beaten.  

In 2012 New Zealand began to establish a novel system for regulating certain psychoactive drugs. The system is still being established but essentially, producers of some psychoactive drugs will be allowed to offer proof of the safety of psychoactive drugs they wish to sell and if the evidence is accepted, and after also providing a substantial administrative fee, the producers may be able to sell their product. It is understood that the scheme will commence with some drugs which are said to produce ‘synthetic highs’.

In 2012, two high quality films were released advocating drug law reform. ‘The House I Live In’ was released in cinemas in October while ‘Breaking the Taboo’ was released on the internet in December. Both received a very positive reception. Several major former political leaders agreed to be interviewed for these films.

Australia21 hosted a Roundtable (based on a Discussion Paper) in January and released a report based on this meeting in April. The report concluded that Australia’s drug policy was heavily reliant on law enforcement and by many measures had failed comprehensively. None of the many prominent members of the community known to support drug prohibition accepted invitations to participate in the Roundtable. The release of the report at a press conference in the national parliament provoked a spirited debate lasting for well over a month. Few questioned the major findings of the report. A second Australia21 Roundtable, also based on a Discussion Paper, was convened in June and a report released in September. This report compared the generally positive results of drug law reform in the Netherlands, Switzerland and Portugal with the often disappointing results of the more punitive approach adopted in Sweden.  The second report also provoked national discussion for some weeks and again the overall conclusions of the report were not challenged.

An international conference on drug policy at Ditchley, UK, attended by 40 participants from 14 countries broadly supported the view that future drug policy should be based primarily on health measures rather than criminal justice measures as in the past. In the United Kingdom in December, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg conceded in an interview in The Sun that drug prohibition had failed and major new approaches were needed. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, had made a number of unambiguous public statements in 2002 reaching the same conclusions. But in 2012, Cameron declined to support his Deputy Prime Minister. 

The Global Commission on HIV and the Law, established by the United Nations Development Programme, issued a report in August 2012 entitled ‘HIV and the Law: Rights, Risks and Health’. This added additional support from within the UN system for a drug policy more respectful of human rights and public health.

Overall, international support in 2012 has been growing for the notion that global drug prohibition with a ‘one size fits all’ approach has failed abjectly. However there is still little agreement on what approach to drugs should follow and a general recognition that countries should be able to pursue approaches seen to be more consistent with their national circumstances and interests. Support for the notion that drugs are primarily a health and social issue is increasing.  The notion that political support for drug law reform is suicidal while political support for drug prohibition guarantees electoral victory also appears to be breaking down. The severe fiscal problems experienced by governments in the US and Europe is another major factor undermining continuation of expensive government programs for which benefit is difficult to identify while severe adverse unintended consequences are increasingly difficult to ignore. 

Dr Alex Wodak AM
Director, Australia21