On October 19th, Richard Branson, the head of Virgin and a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, blogged about a United Nations paper (find it below the article!). He claimed that it had been suppressed by a powerful member state (probably the US) because it supported the decriminalisation of drug use - that is, the abolition of criminal sanctions directed against people who use drugs. The paper had been prepared by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and was intended for publication at the International Harm Reduction Conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The paper encourages member states “to use non-penal, public health measures to address drug dependence and drug use” and to provide alternatives to punishment for small-scale distributors (pushers) as well. It uses entirely logical arguments, consistent with international law and scientific evidence.
People were whispering in the corridors of the conference that before publication, the agency had already sent out the paper, under embargo, to a selected group of journalists. Maybe one of these journalists called the White House for comment, the gossip ran, and a high-level drug control official effectively suppressed its publication – although there is no way, at present, to know for certain whether this is true or not. The UNODC itself, in a press statement, claimed never to have intended to publish the paper in Kuala Lumpur, and to have only prepared it “for dissemination and discussion”. Well, the organisers of the conference took them at their word: They invited conference paticipants to discuss and endorse the document. Luckily, the Drugreporter video crew was there to film what happened, and to obtain comments from some key professionals and activists.
More and more UN officials, international organisations, and member states support decriminalisation. The latest example is Ireland - its Minister of Drugs having announced last Monday that his government plans to open drug consumption rooms and remove sanctions against drug users from its criminal code. The reason is simple, it's not rocket science. The suppressed UN paper explains it all in detail, but it can be summarised in one simple sentence: criminalisation doesn't work, and it harms our society. It generates costs beyond mere money, suffering beyond the intentions of most people who support it. Too many young people have to die, when (for fear of arrest) they or their friends don't call for help if one of them overdoses. Too many people are infected with Hepatitis C or HIV, because they are afraid to access needle and syringe programs. Too many people in poor neighborhoods have to suffer from drug litter because drug users feel forced to discard their needles in order to avoid arrest. Too many policemen use drug laws as a pretext to stigmatise people who are poor, or who belong to minority groups. Too many young people lose all faith in the rule of law, when they can be punished simply for what they put into their own bodies. Too many precious financial resources are allocated to ineffective law enforcement interventions - resources that could be used to fund life-saving programs.
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