Although President Obama has not given any official indication, a leading official with the U.S. State Department seems confident that prohibition may become unhinged at some point in 2016 and lead to the possible decriminalization of all illegal drugs across the globe.
On Tuesday, William Brownfield, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, told reporters that U.S. officials are currently at the drawing board in an attempt to draft an all-powerful piece of documentation — what he calls a “pragmatic reform agenda” — that they intend to present at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs next month in New York City.
At its core, Brownfield suggests that the proposed “recommitment” to the three international drug conventions would be designed to persuade countries to remove the focus of the Drug War away from arrests and harsh penalties, and instead attack the issue from a public health standpoint.
“We will call for pragmatic and concrete criminal justice reform, areas such as alternatives to incarceration or drug courts, or sentencing reform,” he said. “In other words, as President Obama has said many times publicly, to decriminalize much of the basic behavior in drug consumption in order to focus scarce law enforcement resources on the greater challenge of the large transnational criminal organizations.”
It has been speculated for the past several years that a major rewrite to the UN’s drug treaties would be necessary before governments all over the world could begin exploring alternative approaches to handling drugs without violating international law. However, while the details of the Obama Administration’s recommended revisions are not completely clear, they do appear to support policies, or perhaps philosophies, that remain in line with the original text of the three conventions.
When asked if the outcome of UNGASS 2016 would give countries the green light to decriminalize the possession and use of illegal substances, Brownfield responded by trying to offer some clarification into the language of the drug treaties, saying they were never intended to put people in jail for simply using drugs.
“The conventions, as I mentioned, do have a substantial amount of discretionary authority built in them. They do not require, in the text of the convention, the criminalization of the consumption of a product. A nation can reach its own determination there, so long as it does it in a way that is consistent with the objective of reducing the harm caused to societies, communities, and individuals of the product.”
Brownfield went on to explain that the U.S. Government’s hands off approach to the four states that have established fully legal cannabis markets does not violate treaty obligations “because first, the federal law, national law, still proscribes and prohibits marijuana; and second, because the objective, as asserted by the states themselves, is still to reduce the harm caused by the consumption or marijuana.”
However, despite the fact that over half the states have legalized the leaf for medicinal and recreational purposes, not to mention the attempts in several other countries to reform policies on the substance, Brownfield told Samuel Oakford of VICE News that the United States government is still hell bent on “limiting and eventually eliminating the use of marijuana in the United States of America because of its harm and its dangers, excepting and not entering into the medical exception issue.”
Last week, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) in Vienna published a preliminary statement that jives with the overall message that Brownfield attempted to relay during a press event earlier this week in New York. The agency’s 2015 report, which states “the international drug control treaties do not mandate a “war on drugs,” is expected to be a centralized focus of the 2016 UN special session of the General Assembly scheduled to get underway in April.
"It is not the case that the world must choose between 'militarized' drug law enforcement on one hand and the legalization of non-medical use of drugs on the other; but rather to put health and welfare at the centre of a balanced drug policy,” INCB President Werner Sipp said in a press statement.