An upcoming high-level review of global drug policies is a chance for the U.S. to encourage countries to move toward health-focused approaches to substance misuse and away from failed criminalization strategies.
That’s the message a group of 14 U.S. House Democrats sent in a letter to President Obama on Thursday.
Next month, heads of state and other leaders from around the world will gather in New York for a United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drug issues.
Calling the meeting “an important opportunity,” the lawmakers, led by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (OR) and John Conyers (MI), urged the president to “take full advantage of this timely and powerful event to communicate our progress toward a more effective, science-based approach to drugs to the rest of the world.”
At the last UNGASS, in 1998, countries came together under the slogan, “A Drug Free World. We Can Do It!” Since that time, four U.S. states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis, as has the nation of Uruguay. Canada’s prime minister has pledged to do so, and Mexico is making major marijuana law reform moves, and so are other countries.
While admitting that there is “much to be done in the United States to fully support a public health and harm reduction approach,” the lawmakers write that the country “has significantly moved our domestic drug policy from a punitive approach, almost entirely focused on the criminal justice system, to one centered on public health and healthcare, access to treatment services and harm reduction tools that reduce overdose and spread of infection.”
They cite state-based medical cannabis and marijuana legalization policies, syringe access programs and sentencing reforms as examples.
“We are moving in a good direction, and this shift in United States domestic drug policy over the last decade has the potential to serve as a model for the international community, cautioning other countries against a dangerously punitive response and demonstrating an approach to drug policy that is more compassionate, just and effective on the local and the international levels,” they write.
Joining Blumenauer and Conyers on the letter are Reps. Steve Cohen (TN), Sam Farr (CA), Raúl Grijalva (AZ), Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC), Barbara Lee (CA), Ted Lieu (CA), James McGovern (MA), Jerry McNerney (CA), Beto O’Rourke (TX), Mark Pocan (WI), Jose Serrano (NY) and Chris Van Hollen (MD).
Earlier this month, a top U.S. State Department official gave vague indications that the U.S. might even encourage countries to “decriminalize” drugs at the UNGASS, even though they remain criminalized domestically.
“The world looks to the United States for leadership on the issues that impact the global community,” the House members wrote to Obama. “Drug policy is one of those issues. We urge you and other representatives of your Administration to highlight at every opportunity our nation’s growing commitment to the protection of the health and safety of individuals, communities and nations.”
They conclude by urging the president himself to deliver the U.S. position before the General Assembly, rather than assigning the task to a lower-ranking administration official.
“That unique platform gives you the opportunity to elevate the 2016 UNGASS on the World Drug Problem and change the way drug policy is approached, not only domestically, but also around the world, establishing the United States’ commitment to a new approach on an international scale,” the letter reads.
President Bill Clinton spoke for the U.S. during the 1998 session.
This year’s UNGASS is set for April 19-21.