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Threading the Needle: UN & the War on Drugs

By Karina Taylor

Last month, the White House rolled out a new policy expanding America’s ongoing War on Drugs. The nature of these measures, reveal a marked shift in priorities regarding both the targeted population and the drug in question. The Obama administration is allocating $2.5 million of its $25.1 billion budget to fight narcotics to a “Heroin Response Strategy” focused on directing drug users towards treatment and not prison.

While the monetary amount is small, the problem it is designed to tackle is not. Publications such as The Washington Post have covered America’s growing heroin problem among Northeastern whites, now considered a nasty side-effect of the over-prescription, abuse, and subsequent crackdown on opioid painkillers. This announcement is a departure from both the government’s usual emphasis on the supply side of the drug trade and its maintained position on drug use as a strictly criminal act.

The effects of this policy change reach beyond the domestic sphere. Though a member and host nation of the United Nations, the United States has often found itself at odds with the organization’s multilateral efforts on a variety of fronts, due to differences in perception of the geopolitical landscape. In this instance, however, America’s prioritization of treatment over a misapplied loyalty to ‘law and order’ is in step with the U.N.’s proposed post-2015 agenda. Any policy alignment between the U.N. and the U.S. is positive on the surface.

However, when placed in the context of the U.N.’s intended human development plans, this new U.S. policy is revealed to be central to a fraught debate about the relationship between national governments and international organizations. Who decides which policy is “best” for a given issue or population? Even if a majority of the international community agrees on what is “right,” it is truly within any organization’s power to force whoever is “wrong” to correct their policies?

The United Nations’ aforementioned development plan is known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), or more colloquially, the Global Goals. Set for ratification on Sept. 25, the SDGs are an extension of the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) scheduled to expire this year. The SDGs are more ambitious than their predecessors in scope as well as number. Expanding the roster of benchmarks to 17 from eight, this new post-2015 agenda is designed for universality, taking aim at issues affecting the global population in its entirety as opposed to merely the planet’s most disadvantaged.

The overlapping drug policies in question are a target of SDG #3,“…ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.” Here the open working group proposes that member nations “strengthen the prevention and treatment of substance abuse, including narcotic drug abuse and harmful use of alcohol” by 2030.

In the pursuit of maximum efficiency of implementation, targets within the SDGs are assigned indicators to measure impact -- in this case, “coverage” of both “opioid substitution therapy” and “interventions for the prevention of substance abuse.” These proposed measures are humane and virtuous in their intent but almost immediately meet real-world resistance. Principal among these roadblocks is the wildly inconsistent approach to drug legislation throughout the international community. That different regions have different approaches to public policy is far from unheard of in any organization with 193 members, but the extremes in this instance cast serious doubt upon any dreams of consensus currently held by negotiators.

To illustrate, this spring France followed fellow European nations, such as Germany and Spain, in legalizing the existence of government monitored ‘shooting galleries’ where abusers of heroin, and other intravenous drugs, can consume without fear of arrest, to the chagrin of the neighborhoods chosen to host them. Meanwhile the U.N. continues to fund anti-drug trafficking efforts in Iran despite that nation’s tendency to punish drug offenses with execution, in conflict with the U.N.’s professed human rights positions. These cases highlight not only a disagreement about the criminal nature of drugs, but also the degree of acceptability drug culture is granted within a given society.

This becomes all the more evident when taking into account how France and Iran each address one societal aspect of the drug trade while neglecting crucial problems on the other side of the equation. In France, the outright prevention of risky behavior is sacrificed in the name of decreasing disease among those already suffering from a potentially deadly addiction, while Iran’s tactics willfully ignore its growing addict population in its woeful efforts to stem supply through fear. Neither nation is considering at a policy level the societal rifts their methods continue to exacerbate.

What can be done to bridge these approaches? Andrea Bartoli, current dean of Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations, believes that answers may lie in removing the conversation from the domestic context altogether. Dr. Bartoli acknowledges that national drug policies are “extremely diversified” and more importantly that “in any nation, you have multiple cultural fabrics, and in many places you see a marginalization of groups and voices.” He suggests that the elevation of these policy debates from “a nationalistic view [to] more of a universal conversation” is in fact part of the state’s duty to protect minority rights. The supranational nature of an organization like the United Nations lessens the political burden of defending societally unpopular positions. Claiming a powerful outside organization gave no choice but to comply provides lawmakers the political cover they need to draft rules sympathetic to people the majority declines to defend.

Acknowledging the need for international discourse does little to untangle the mass of conflicting attitudes that plague an issue like drug policy. Swansea University’s David Bewley-Taylor serves as current director of its Global Drug Policy Observatory. When asked to categorize these differences in approach, he highlighted some countries moving towards “market management,” wherein governments seek to treat drug abusers while “accepting that an illicit drug market will continue to exist,” in contrast to nations that support a more “prohibition-oriented approach.”

Professor Bewley-Taylor acknowledged that the latter “war on drugs” mentality is in fact “privileged within the U.N. drug control treaties [...] as a means to address the Single convention’s concern for the health and welfare of mankind.” This means that countries moving away from drug prohibition towards drug treatment could hypothetically face charges of treaty violation for finding new ways to save the lives of their citizens. Moral incongruities like this fuel Bewley-Taylor’s hope is that the SDG indicators can “move away from process indicators that are little more than measures of law enforcement activity, [towards] metrics that measure outcomes that matter to individuals and communities.”

Put simply, any indicator developed to measure the success of this global drug target must take into account both sides of the drug trade, providing the aforementioned ‘interventions’ in the forms of viable societal alternatives for users and traffickers alike. This is a necessity not borne out of need to pander to both sides but in fact to unite their desire in a common interest. The through-line of this debate - from the heroin users and narcotics traffickers to the political bodies and academics on the sidelines - is the nature of a ‘humane’ policy. Legislators’ desire to be not only successful but right, to be considered as defendants of the people this issue makes truly vulnerable, speaks to a deeper challenge facing the implementation of policy as ambitious as the United Nations’ SDGs.

*****

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Karina Taylor is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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