(See updates at the bottom of this story for the latest.)
A growing number of prominent groups are calling for a shift away from the war on drugs and toward decriminalization, but the United Nations drug czar’s office isn’t yet one of them — despite what one major news outlet reported on Tuesday.
The UN held its highest-level review of the global drug war this week, and many headlines were generated after countries like Canada and Mexico announced significant reforms. But at least one newspaper got tricked into reporting fake news from the event.
According the Los Angeles Times:
As the summit opened Tuesday, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime announced new international recommendations, including the decriminalization of marijuana, universal access to controlled medicines, criminal justice system reforms including elimination of mandatory minimum jail sentences and abolition of the death penalty and acknowledging marijuana’s medical use.
“The science increasingly supports decriminalization and harm reduction over proscriptive, fear-based approaches,” UNODC Executive Director Yuri Fedotov said in a statement Tuesday. “It’s time to reverse the cycles of violence that occur wherever ‘drug wars’ are undertaken, and to abandon policies that exacerbate suffering.”
The UNODC also said it would reform its decision-making process to include a more diverse range of voices.
“We can begin to dismantle ‘just say no’ policies that result in millions needlessly killed and incarcerated — and that defy logic and science — and instead bring to the forefront humane solutions that are known to work,” said Kevin Campo, a spokesman for the drugs agency.
To advocates of ending the war on drugs, that sounds like great news. There’s only one problem: It’s all based on a fake press release claiming that UNODC was using cannabis holiday 4/20 to announce a big shift:
“The UNODC is proud to take its cue from a popular movement supporting marijuana decriminalization in particular, which claims as its annual holiday 4/20, or April 20, the central date of this year’s UNGASS,” said UNODC Public Information Officer Kevin Campo during opening remarks at the first plenary session on Tuesday morning. “This is just one way we’re showing our commitment to rethinking the drug war from a more humane perspective.”
The site on which the release is housed, unodcpress.org, looks identical to the real UNODC site, except that going to the unodcpress.org homepage redirects right to the press release — one of many red flags that should have made the Times skeptical of running with the story.
Whoever is behind the prank, though, went to some lengths to make it look real. They even set up a Twitter account for “Kevin Campo,” the alleged UNODC spokesman, who later tweeted happily about being included in the Times piece:
— Kevin Campo (@KevCampoUN) April 20, 2016
But even a quick review of the account’s timeline shows that all but a couple of its tweets are from this week. The earlier two tweets, bizarrely, are about virtual reality.
An email to the address listed on the spoof site went unanswered, and Marijuana.com has so far been unable to ascertain who is behind the prank. It does, however, seem similar to the work to the Yes Men, a pair of activists who have successfully tricked major media outlets into thinking they represent major corporations or government agencies many times in the past.
Times reporter Ann M. Simmons, in her story, also says she interviewed UNODC head Yury Fedotov. Citing “written responses to questions from The Times,” she quotes Fedotov as saying that this week’s UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) is not “simply about policy… It is about putting people first.” The quotes in that part of the story are a little more believable than the ones in the fake press release, so it is unclear if she corresponded via real UNODC channels or with whoever is behind the spoof.
Simmons did not respond to a request for comment from Marijuana.com.
A followup spoof press release denouncing the original one adds an additional twist to the story. Purporting to quote real-life UNODC spokesman David Dadge, the second release (which is hosted on an entirely different UNODC lookalike site, unodc.press) says that “The United Nations does not recognize ‘4/20′” but urges readers to start growing their own marijuana while “deadbeat states like the USA, Russia and China” delay enacting legal systems of regulated cannabis sales.
No media outlets seem to have been fooled into running with that release, but the Los Angeles Times story with the fake quotes from the first release is still up, three days after having been initially published. An email to the address listed under the second release also went unanswered.
This isn’t the first time news outlets have been tricked into reporting fake marijuana news. Last year, for example, a number of cannabis websites ran with a spoof story about how the U.S government was paying people $3,000 a week to sit around and smoke marijuana.
Last October, controversy ensued after UNODC was reportedly preparing to join other UN agencies in endorsing drug decriminalization but swiftly pulled back after allegedly receiving pressure from the United States.
The Times is updating its story to append the following correction, according to an email from Hillary Manning, the paper’s director of communications.
“An earlier version of this article quoted Yuri Fedotov, the executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, as saying it was changing course in the war on drugs and was examining the decriminalization of drug use, among other innovations. Though the U.N. was indeed examining policy changes, that statement was based on a news release that was a hoax. Fedotov’s other comments in the story were based on an email conversation he had with The Times. The article also quoted Kevin Campo, who was identified in the fake press release as a spokesman for the U.N. agency. He is not an agency spokesman.”
Marijuana.com has confirmed that the Yes Men are behind the prank, in collaboration with homegrown marijuana community Potanist.co.
In an emailed response, “Kevin Campo” said that the ruse “highlights our concerns about how powerful states like Russia and the US perpetuate the drug war and harm its victims, and how home-growing among other systemic changes we need to implement can be an alternative to cycles of drug violence that are reinforced by the UNODC’s troglodytic policies.”
He also shared a statement from Potanist.co saying that “the war on drugs is bullshit. Cannabis prohibition is an egregious example of policy engineered to disproportionately impact low-income communities of color and those already on the fringes of society. As an added benefit, this policy has provided non-state actors in Latin America ostensibly infinite funding for their cartel wars.”
Photo Courtesy of Anton Watman