In April 2016, representatives of the world’s nations will gather to evaluate drug policy in a United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS). While prohibitionist policies are still the norm, a rising tide of voices are demanding evidence based responses that respect human rights, promote public health, and reduce crime.
Voices for reform reached the UN General Assembly in 2012 when the presidents of Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala, fatigued by the drug war, requested that the UN hold a session to evaluate the impact of international drug policies. President Calderon of Mexico urged the UN to, “not only take part, but to lead a 21st century discussion that, without false prejudices, can lead us all to find solutions to this problem under new frameworks.”
The unique nature of this request is, in and of itself, significant. These leaders were so strongly compelled by the dire effects of the international drug control system in their region that they respectfully demanded that the world’s leaders urgently review its impact.
Because these leaders made this urgent request, the spirit of the Special Session in 2016 should be markedly different from other such sessions. Momentum is building at every level for a thoughtful evaluation of the drug policy system and how our lives—whether we live in Europe, America, or Asia—are impacted by international drug control treaties.
This will not be the first time that such a gathering seized the opportunity to change the world for the better. In 2001, urged on by absolute outrage over the inequitable treatment of those living with HIV and AIDS in the global south, the UNGASS on HIV/AIDS transformed the global response to the epidemic. Prior to the special session in 2001, the news from the West was encouraging. New drugs were widely available for those living with HIV in the United States and western Europe. However, the developing world, where 800 million people lacked access to health services, bore more than 90% of the global burden of HIV infection. At the time, a year of treatment, then priced at $15,000 US, was out of reach for the vast majority in the global South.
At the UNGASS on HIV/AIDS in 2001, the vast divide in access to care between North and South galvanized delegates to action, overwhelmed powerful opposition, and precipitated a sea change in the global response to HIV and AIDS. Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, proposed the creation of a global fund outside of the UN system—a radical step to suggest a solution not administered by his own organization. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria was born; a partnership between governments, civil society, the private sector, and people affected by these diseases. The Global Fund mobilizes and invests nearly $4 billion US a year to support programmes run by local experts in more than 140 countries. Today, 6.6 million people are receiving antiretroviral treatment for HIV as the result of Global Fund grants.
In the war on drugs, as was the case with the HIV epidemic, the poorest and most vulnerable around the world are paying the greatest price in human lives, human rights infringement, and economic impact. And, much like the initial response to the HIV epidemic, interests and agendas in the global North are driving policy making with little regard for the suffering those policies inflict.
Widely held and regularly vocalized outrage at the unjust burden of the HIV epidemic born by the global South was one of the secrets to the success of UNGASS 2001. Momentum at the grassroots level trickled up to the policymakers thus levelling the playing field. We must build momentum for UNGASS 2016. We have not yet reached our boiling point over the unjust burden that the war on drugs has placed on the poor and minorities.
And we are not alone. Policy makers continue to turn a blind eye to the fact that the current drugs regime is not only wasteful and ineffective, but also harmful and unjust.
Over $100 billion a year is spent enforcing global prohibition, which has been found to facilitate the spread of HIV and hepatitis C, increase the likelihood of drug overdose, and inhibit access to quality healthcare treatment.  This approach fails to address—and even contributes to—human rights abuses in the form of over-incarceration, disproportionate sentencing, forced disappearances, police abuse, and overuse of extended pretrial detention, as well as sexual abuse, isolation, and forced labor undertaken in the name of drug treatment.
Incarceration rates for drug related crimes are excessive and often racist. Though rates of drug use are comparable across racial lines, people of colour are far more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated for drug law violations than whites.
Families of those incarcerated also pay the price. About 1.5 million minor children have a parent incarcerated in state or federal prison in the United States. One in every 15 African American children has a parent in prison. Children of the incarcerated are more likely than their peers to exhibit academic difficulties, emotional problems, antisocial behaviour, and suffer from malnutrition and anaemia. In fact, it seems that incarceration, by itself, places children and families at increased risk.
Half-a-million people are in drug detention centers as a form of drug treatment in Laos, Vietnam, China, Cambodia, and Thailand. In these camps patients are beaten, forced to work under harsh conditions, denied harm reduction and treatment, and are even starved.
Violating international human rights law, thirty-three countries and territories, including China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and Malaysia, retain the death penalty for drug offences. In the past year many hundreds of people have been executed for drug offences in violation of international law.
Crop eradication in Latin America often with harmful pesticides and without offering an alternative livelihood, puts the health and economy of local communities at risk and causes forced displacement.
In North, Central, and South America, increased militarization of the war on drugs coupled with expanded police authority and areas of corruption of local authorities has led to social destabilization, the erosion of public safety, and the death of thousands of citizens, activists, and journalists. In Mexico alone, more than 70,000 people have been killed in the drug war since 2006.
Thousands of children recently crossed the border into the US in an effort to escape the violence largely fueled by drug wars in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. These children are sleeping on mats in holding facilities, basically homeless, because crime—much of it linked to drugs—is ravaging Central America.
Who would be the greatest beneficiaries of decriminalization and humanization of drug policy? Casual users will of course benefit, but the greatest impact will be felt by millions of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world, both north and south, whose lives have been decimated by the impact of the war on drugs. The LSE Expert Group on the Economics of Drug Policy reported in 2014 that, “Viewed from the perspective of producer and transit countries, prohibitionist drug policies are a transfer of the costs of the drug problem from consumer to producer and transit countries, where the latter are pushed to design and implement supply reduction policies.”
The 2001 UNGASS on HIV/AIDS improved the lives of millions of the world’s most vulnerable; we can do this again in 2016.
 Elliott Richard, Joanne Csete, Evan Wood, and Thomas Kerr. (2013). Harm Reduction, HIV/AIDS, and the Human Rights Challenge to Global Drug Control Policy. Human Rights in a Changing World. Routledge. Chapter 37.
Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch is the director of Global Drug Policy Program, Open Society Foundations.
Competing interests: None declared.