It was a week of high hopes at the UN with Canadian Minister of Health Jane Philpott’s announcement of the country’s plan to legalize cannabis in Spring 2017. The Minister’s statement also focused on safe injection sites, naloxone distribution, support for people who use drugs, and harm reduction practices. In speaking with the Minister afterwards, she emphasized the need to close research gaps and noted that the government will soon be providing additional funding research for cannabis through the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR). In her address to the UN General Assembly, Minister Philpott related the story of mumsDU founder Donna May, whose daughter died of an opiate overdose at the hands of an attending doctor who was neither able to identify an opiate overdose nor trained in administering naloxone, which can block such overdoses. Following her daughter’s passing, Donna May has spent the last 44 months pushing to reform the policies that contributed to her daughter’s preventable death.
The UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem was structured into two sections each day. At the general assembly, country delegates presented formal statements on their nation’s position. In addition, side events took place elsewhere in the UN building. At these panels, governments and civil society groups presented and held discussions on drug policy. With Canada’s official statement, it appears our country’s reputation on the world stage is taking a noticeable turn for the better as attendees from all over the world spoke highly of the progressive position Minster Philpott presented. Elsewhere in New York, Americans jokingly pleaded for Canada to stop making them look bad and offered the solution (to at least some issues) of having Justin Trudeau box Donald Trump.
Overall, there was a much different perspective presented at this year’s UNGASS on drug policy compared to the previous meeting in 1998. Many countries who had signed a consensus agreement for a world free from the “evil” of drugs were now advocating for a world where we can live well with drugs, with a focus on human rights. South American nations, having been especially devastated by the drug war, were among the most progressive. The president of Mexico addressed the assembly stressing the need to modify punitive approaches. The delegate from Colombia pointed out the benign nature of the coca leaf in its natural form and another representative from Colombia emphasized the importance of not focusing on the negatives of drug use alone, but on the potential positives of currently illegal substances as well.
In the global arena however, Southeast Asian countries seem to be far behind. Indonesia continued to advocate for the death penalty for non-violent drug crimes. Sergius Wat, the delegate from Singapore, mentioned that the country would be open to changing its drug policies if someone could show them a more effective policy in treating addiction, yet he followed this statement by denying that anyone could present such evidence, and thus fell back on justifying incarceration for users as well as crop eradication strategies. Wat emphasized tough on crime laws (which are somehow supposed to help addiction) and zero tolerance policies. Thailand’s prisons are currently 80% full with drug users, and examples have emerged from the country of users who are flogged, locked in prison for 20+ years for as little as 1.5 pills of methamphetamine and labeled as drug addicts for the rest of their lives. However, there is a unique issue in Southeast Asia that was highlighted by an audience member of the Amphetamine-Type Stimulants panel discussion. During the question period, the attendee from Vietnam pointed out that the states in that area do not have the resources or the education to determine the difference between problematic and unproblematic drug use. This leads to all drug users being labeled as addicts, which is troubling when one considers that 80-90% of people who use drugs do not have a dependence issue. For example, though amphetamines are often considered to have a high addictive potential, the majority of methamphetamine users only use the substance less than once per month. Another common misconception with regards to methamphetamine is that it renders users violent. However, Dr. Carl Hart, a speaker on the panel, mentioned that he had administered methamphetamine in a laboratory setting many times and had never seen an instance of violence. He pointed out that such issues are not caused by the drug itself, but rather by a lack of sleep, malnutrition and a lack of meaningful and social engagement that tend to be associated with frequent stimulant use. He noted that those looking to reduce the harms associated with drug use would do well to enact social policies that positively affect the health, wellness, and social contact of drug users.
However, after decades of a war on psychoactive plants, the poor, and those coping with mental health difficulties, a reassuring perspective is being brought to the world stage by member states from Europe, South America and Canada. Many of these countries promoted harm reduction strategies and a public health approach to drug use. That being said, attitudes on drug control remain highly polarized across the world. As of last year, at least 33 states have laws allowing for, or even requiring, the death penalty for drug-related crimes. The war on drugs is nothing short of a series of violations on personal and religious freedoms that denies the long history that human beings have with plant teachers and other mind altering compounds. The death penalty can only be considered an atrocious experiment in puritanism and remains a primary obstacle to global assurance of human rights. Though UNGASS 2016 shows a step in the right direction for many – especially Canada – there is much room for improvement.
Daniel Greig is a student of Cognitive Science at the University of Toronto. His interest in drug policy is focused on the research of psychedelic compounds and their implications for mental health treatments, consciousness and the development of wisdom. Dan is an engaged member of the U of T community, organizing events around campus for the Cognitive Science Students Union, the Buddhism and Psychology Union as well as CSSDP. He is also a musician, with an focus in improvisation and progressive metal. You can find his academic work here.