United Nations Appoints Leader Known for Decriminalizing Drugs

Photo by KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images

With the American election still dominating headlines, it was easy to miss the appointment of António Guterres as the top man at the United Nations. Guterres was sworn in as the Secretary-General on Jan 1.

While the power of the U.N. Secretary-General is indeed limited, this one is very much worth watching.

Guterres is the former prime minister of Portugal, a country famous among activists for decriminalizing personal use of all drugs—yes, all of them, including coke, heroin and meth—instead, focusing on harm reduction and addiction recovery as an alternative to criminalizing a public health issue. Guterres was instrumental in getting this change passed, and the results have been spectacular.

As of July 2001, possession of up to a 10-day supply of any illegal drug changed from a criminal offense to an administrative one. Which means that if caught by cops, users will not be arrested, although their stash will be confiscated, and they will be issued a summons to be interviewed by a Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction (Comissões para a Dissuasão da Toxicodependência), comprising of a psychiatrist, a lawyer and a social worker. The commission can levy fines, restrict or ban some forms of travel and revoke licenses for some professions like doctors or professional drivers, but their main goal is to get addicts and users into rehab programs.

The benefits of these changes have included an increase in users seeking treatment, lower rates of HIV infection and a decline in drug use among adolescents. Decriminalization has become so popular that even right wing political parties in Portugal have come to accept it.

In his book Drug Decriminalization in Portugal – Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies, author and investigative reporter Glenn Greenwald points out: “The political consensus in favor of decriminalization is unsurprising in light of the relevant empirical data. Those data indicate that decriminalization has had no adverse effect on drug usage rates in Portugal, which, in numerous categories, are now among the lowest in the EU.”

So with this kind of history under his belt, the new Secretary-General should be a staunch ally of those pushing for reasonable drug laws, although how much change he will be able to influence, or if he will even try, is still to be seen. But this is certainly a step in the right direction.

The United Nation’s Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs is an international treaty that has stymied activists’ hopes since 1961. Particularly for those working on marijuana reform.

Many countries refuse to even consider rethinking cannabis laws as long as it remains scheduled as it is now. Pot is currently under the most restrictive classification, with the treaty claiming it is “particularly liable to abuse and to produce ill effects, and such liability is not offset by substantial therapeutic advantages.” This stance is clearly incorrect, and now the leader of the organization enforcing these laws knows it.

To let the new Secretary-General know you want him to fight for patients’ rights at the UN, the same way he did in Portugal, contact his office HERE.

You can keep up with all of HIGH TIMES’ marijuana news right here.

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