A world free of drug abuse? The UN must keep trying.

 A UN special assembly on drugs will try to rebuild a global consensus on drug policies. New treatments offer hope for abusers in being addiction-free. But anti-drug enforcement, while in need of reform, should not be reduced.

Steel Brooks/Gillette News Record via AP
Adult Treatment Court graduate Kelly Stone chats with councilor Marty Huckins after the Treatment Court graduation at the Campbell County Courthouse on April 5 in Gillette, Wyo.

For six decades, the world community has signed a string of treaties aimed at curbing the production, trafficking, and use of illict drugs. But this consensus has lately become fractured, mainly over the failure of a few Latin American countries to crack down on drug cartels. This week, the United Nations hopes to rebuild this consensus by holding a special assembly on the topic. It is important the UN maintain a global effort for what clearly remains a transnational problem.

Like many issues, drug policy has become polarized. One side emphasizes enforcement (mainly against traffickers). The other prefers treatment for drug abusers. This division is driven mainly by a competition for government resources.

Yet views on the nature of addiction have slowly changed. New treatment programs show hope for abusers  in choosing to be free of harmful substances. The global debate on drug policy has thus swung against the long-time emphasis on enforcement.

To keep a consensus, the UN should encourage countries to spend more on both treatement and enforcement. At the same time, governments should eliminate many of the abuses in enforcement, such as the use of the death penalty, as well as improve on the new approaches for treatment. Governments, for example, should not be encouraging drug use by setting up rooms for supervised consumption of hard drugs like heroin. This only encourages the idea that there are safe ways to use narcotics.

The UN now recognizes that drug policies can influence its goals for ending poverty. Drug-related violence, for example, keeps many communities from developing their economy. Just as the UN’s anti-poverty goals enjoy wide support, so should its approaches on drugs. The tools to be free of either drugs or poverty exist. The UN can find the right balance for both.

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