Will the UN take a more liberal stance on the global war on drugs?

A special United Nations session on global drug policy, the first since 1998, is set to review the international drug war while addressing shifts toward more lenient narcotics laws in several of its member states.

Bebeto Matthews/AP
Enrique Pena Nieto, President of the United Mexican States, addresses the UN special session on global drug policy on Tuesday at UN headquarters in New York.

A United Nations General Assembly special session this week will focus on the global war on narcotics, in the first meeting of the international organization regarding drug policy since 1998.

The gathering of the 193 member states comes at a time when many leaders are questioning the effectiveness of the ongoing international drug war, and as several countries are opening up to more liberal drug laws than ever before. Previous efforts, such as the special session on drug policy in the late 1990s that resulted in a UN declaration for "eliminating or significantly reducing" the manufacture and sale of illicit substances by 2008, have largely failed.

"Evidence shows that prohibitionist approaches have not worked – from 1998 to 2008 the number of people using illicit drugs did not change significantly," UN Assistant Secretary-General Magdy Martínez-Solimán wrote in The Guardian. "Conventional policies have failed in reducing addiction and production."

Some nations agree with Mr. Martínez-Solimán's assessment. In 2009, Mexico decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. Uruguay legalized marijuana use in 2013, becoming the first nation to officially do so. Four US states also legalized the drug, with several more allowing some form of medical marijuana.

Despite the recent shift toward more tolerant drug laws in those places, however, the issue remains solidly opposed by other UN members.

"Any form of legalization of narcotics should be resolutely opposed," Chinese Public Security Minister Guo Shengkun said at the session, according to the Associated Press.

Many nations still maintain strictly enforced drug laws, some associated with the death penalty. Amnesty International found that China, Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and more continue to sentence to death those convicted on drug-related crimes. An Amnesty death penalty expert told the AP that last year, an estimated 685 people were executed globally for drug-related crimes.

Last month, the Global Commission on Drug Policy released a document calling for an end to the "criminalization and incarceration of drug users" and capital punishment for drug-related crimes, among other drug policy reforms. The commission is made up of several former world leaders including the presidents of Mexico, Colombia, and the former UN secretary-general, as well as figures such as Virgin Group founder Richard Branson.

Last week, hundreds of politicians, academics, celebrities, and more addressed a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon calling for reforms to the "ineffective and counter-productive" drug war that has "proven disastrous for global health, security and human rights."

Activists hope that the UN meeting can result in policy focused more on health and human rights rather than continued prohibition or efforts to cut off drug supply, according to Reuters.

"It is an opportunity for the international community to focus on public health in tackling the world drug problem," a US Department of State official told Forbes.

The special UN session will continue through Thursday.

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