Is there a growing “dissensus” globally on the best approach to drug policy and the legitimacy of the international drug control regime? This, among other topics, was the focus of a discussion hosted on April 7 by the Foreign Policy and Governance Studies programs. As the U.N. General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the world drug problem convenes next week, there are new opportunities to improve global drug policy.
Harold Trinkunas, senior fellow and director of the Latin America Initiative stressed that global debate around drug policy is on the rise, saying:
“Some countries in Latin America are increasingly in disagreement with some of the more punitive features of the international drug control regime while other countries in Asia, particularly China, as well as Russia, very much are adhering to the regime as it currently stands.”
John Walsh, senior associate for drug policy and the Andes at Washington Office on Latin America, argued that UNGASS 2016 is likely to be a disappointment, at least in the short term, because some powerful member states seek to prevent a wider discussion on the issue. He noted that for political reasons, these states chose not block the UNGASS altogether, but their influence kept the conversation at the Vienna negotiations relatively on course with the existing drug policy regime. As a result, he believes that “the outcome document that was negotiated in Vienna last month is largely a ratification of business as usual.” He then discussed why this outcome should not be a surprise.
Senior Fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown laid out some of the key findings from Improving Global Drug Policy Papers: prioritizing violence reduction over reducing the flow of illegal drugs, putting public health ahead of criminalization of drug use, the importance of local institutional and cultural settings on the effectiveness of particular policies, and the role of civil society on both sides of the debate. She then addressed the impact of legacy and the ways in which countries’ individual experience with drugs has impacted their drug policy. While Latin America has experienced extreme violence associated with the drug trade, in East Asia drug-related violence is very low. Additionally, Latin America generally has a shared feeling that former “imperial powers” (largely in the developed world) have forced a specific drug policy on them, while East Asian countries tend to feel that their former “imperial powers” are responsible for their high levels of drug use, specifically of opium. Different historical experiences of the costs and harms of drug trafficking, use, and policies have helped produce major disconnects across regions.