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Radical Rant: International Perspectives at the UN’s Drugs Session

Russ Belville

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I  spent this week in New York City covering a few different events centered around the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (It’s an UNGASS!) on Drugs.

The three-day session, originally scheduled for 2019, was called for by Mexico and Central American countries (or as they’re called here, member states) that are not too happy about the death and destruction the global prohibitionist regime is wreaking on their countries, while neighboring states driving global consumption are spared the carnage and even legalizing weed. With marijuana legal in four US states and Uruguay—the first nation to legalize marijuana—the international cannabis prohibition is untenable.

But if you thought this summit meant world leaders would come together to discuss these matters and work on a resolution, then you don’t know how the UN works. 

On the first day, the member states agreed to what’s called an “outcome document” on how the international community will handle the three “drug conventions”—treaties from 1961, 1972, and 1988—that was decided behind closed doors in Vienna, Austria, before this UNGASS even began.

That’s right—the “outcome” was predetermined and the three-day session functioned as an opportunity for most countries to complain about it.

Since officiating the document required international consensus, it doesn’t change much in the way the international community reads those three treaties. The United States and Uruguay are already violating the treaties by legalizing cannabis, and Canada (and maybe Mexico) will soon be as well. Meanwhile, in places like Singapore, Indonesia, China, and Iran, you can still be executed for drug crimes.

So, all that countries from The Netherlands and Spain (cannabis tolerant) to Saudi Arabia and Qatar (public floggings for possession) could agree on is to change focus from the 1998 drug session’s “A drug-free world; we can do it!” (seriously, they believed this) to this year’s “a world free from drug abuse.”

But as much as cannabis legalization drove the convening of this session, it was sparingly mentioned on the floor of the UN.  Aside from big hits like Canada's announcement of plans to legalize marijuana in 2017, Mexico's endorsement of medical marijuana, and the Jamaican delegation proudly arguing for flexibility in the treaties to recognize cultural and religious use of ganja, there wasn’t much mention of herb.

“The Death Penalty is a Primitive Measure in a Modern Society”

One subject mentioned repeatedly by member states was the need to end the application of the death penalty worldwide for drug crimes. Nation after nation rose to condemn the outcome document for not even addressing this violation of human rights and international law.

But even ending the death penalty for drug crimes was impossible for the UN. Indonesia and China repeatedly warned the other countries that their countries have the sovereign right to administer justice as they see fit. They threatened political ramifications if the UN anti-drug summit was seen as a tool to enforce an anti-death penalty policy on their countries.

Another subject brought up repeatedly was the problem of NPS – new psychoactive substances, or what we usually call “designer drugs." These range from  "bath salts" and "Spice" or "K2" once sold in head shops to the alphabet soup of psychedelic chemicals with names like 25i-NBOMe, β-Methoxy-2C-B, and 3-MeO-PCE.

Many of the nations are frustrated with the scheduling process involved in making these chemicals illegal. It seems that once they make something like 25i-NBOMe illegal, the chemists just tweak the formula a little and now it’s something like 25iP-NBOMe. That tweak remains legal until they ban it, and then the chemists tweak it again.

It’s an ever-escalating arms race, if you will, between chemists and lawmakers. But the chemists are winning, according to the countries that say the scheduling process and lack of international cooperation and communication means only ten or so new molecules get prohibited annually versus the hundreds or more that are invented. These countries call for a fast-track process and more international cooperation to identify and prohibit these drugs.

Note that harm to users and society doesn’t enter the conversation here. If it’s a brand new drug, how do we even know it’s harmful enough to ban? The default in this discussion is that if it makes you high, it is harmful per se and must be banned.

What these countries really need to be successful in the fight against NPS, if I may offer a modest proposal, is to ban that all ingestible things until they’ve been added to the legal substances list. That way, all new drugs would be automatically illegal. Of course, so would a new recipe for tuna casserole, but at least psychonauts wouldn’t be tripping, because banning all drugs has worked so well in the past.

21st Century Reefer Madness is Alive and Well

It was in the side sessions organized by civil society (what the UN calls non-profit organizations working for public benefit) that cannabis got its due. While I attended the main UN sessions, other activist friends told me of side events packed full of more people than there were seats.

In one session, I’m told, prohibitionist David Evans from the Drug-Free America Foundation was booed by the room and seriously chastised by the Jamaican delegation. I regret not making it to that one with my recorder.

I did sit in on the final side event of day three. It was entitled “Alternative Legal Regimes for Cannabis” and presented by Kevin Sabet, the CEO of the anti-legalization group Project SAM. If you have the stomach for it, listen to how the prohibitionists are distorting legalization in Denver and Washington, DC to push “Big Marijuana” scare tactics on the international community.

Cannabis Isn’t the Only Indigenous Use Plant

Outside the UN were numerous protests and demonstrations advocating for reform. Native activists from the Andean Region of South America came dressed in traditional garb, burning ceremonial herbs and clutching coca leaves as they called for recognition of the rights of indigenous people to use the plants their people have used for thousands of years.

Many gatherings happened at the Dag Hammerskjold Plaza, just a couple of blocks from the UN. Students for Sensible Drug Policy gathered there along with the Caravan for Peace and Justice. Displays highlighted the terrible human toll of our drug war in Mexico, Central, and South America.

Dana Beal and Aron Kay headed up a rally there for 4:20pm on 4/20; Adam Eidinger from DCMJ (the group that recently paraded a 51-foot mock joint in front of the White House) brought the mock jail cell for the protest. There was an open mic where activists called for the legalization of iboga, the root that produces ibogaine, a substance believed to help people addicted to heroin.

I recorded much of the celebration/protest and got to speak with wonderful activists like Mikki Norris from California, Doug Fine from New Mexico, Jodi James from Florida, and more.

"We’re Not Going to be the Sugar Slaves Again!”

My favorite moments at the UN, however, happened in the basement cafeteria. There, I set up my laptop to record my podcast each day, and met various delegates and engage in great conversations. I talked to a Moroccan about kif and how it’s harvested, chatted with a Dutchman about the political factors affecting the cannabis trade in coffee shops, and met a Brit who’s a friend of the Brit I let couch-surf at my place in Oregon as he toured the US.

While I was working yesterday, a delegation of three Jamaicans sat next to me. We struck up a conversation, and I told them about my first trip to Negril last year for the Cannabis Cup. This led to this fantastic interview in which I asked them about the UNGASS and the short-shrift given to traditional ganja use and what they thought about “Marley Natural” and the capitalization of cannabis.

"We're the Dagga Couple!"

No sooner had I finished my interview with the Jamaicans than did a white couple approach me and tap me on the shoulder. “You’re ‘Radical’ Russ, aren’t you?” the man asked with a British accent. I introduced myself and met the man, Jules, and his wife, Myrtle. “We’re the Dagga Couple!” he told me.

Dagga is the South African term for marijuana. These two are well-known South African activists who got busted for possession of dagga and are fighting it all the way to the supreme constitutional court as a violation of their civil rights under that constitution.

Jules told me that it was rare for people like him to try to fight these charges. Like the US, there is a racial disparity for incarceration of black people over white people for cannabis crimes. But oddly, the racial disparity in arrests works in a round-about way.

According to Jules, bribes are one of the ways people get out of cannabis crimes in South Africa, and if you’re white and well-off like him, the police know they can go after you and have an easy day making an easy bribe. But if they go after the poor blacks with no resources, it becomes a work day of hauling someone off to a jail cell. Thus, whites get nabbed more often for dagga, but since so many of them pay their way out of the charges, more blacks end up in jail.

Don’t Fear the Blue Helmets

All-in-all, I had an enlightening experience at the UN. Not because of what transpired in the building, but thanks to the amazing people I met inside and outside of it. The session itself was a waste of time—nothing done those three days is going to affect the progress of nationwide and global cannabis re-legalization.

But the UN did convince me of one thing: my redneck cousins in Idaho terrified that the UN Blue Helmets are coming to install the “One World Order” have nothing to fear. This organization couldn’t even agree that the sky is blue if you polled them.

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