Why Are World Leaders Still Dreaming of a Drug-Free World?

Drug reform has been in the agenda of many countries recently
Mexican troops on a drug raid in the state of Michoacán. (Wikimedia)

By Alfredo Pascual

“Intellectuals and Socialism,” written in 1949 by Nobel-prize winning economist F. A. Hayek, is a guiding essay that inspires a great deal of the work of freedom activists such as Students for Liberty, a worldwide network of university groups supporting economic, social, and intellectual freedom.

In a broad sense, Hayek argues that the power of intellectuals should not be underestimated. As “secondhand dealers in ideas,” there are those who spread theories today that will become the political programs of tomorrow.

For this reason, we focus on spreading the ideas of liberty to the general public before we expect any significant change coming from policy makers. To put it simply: politicians, rather than being the architects of social change, react to the current social landscape of values and ideas.

Last month, the 59th Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) took place in Vienna in preparation for the April UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem at the UN Headquarters in New York.

UNGASS 2016 is important for drug reform activists because 1998 was the last time such a session was held. Back then the naïve homogeneous rhetoric was a “drug-free world”.

Things have changed since then. In the past few years, drug policy reform has come into its own, even being prominent in the agenda of many countries.

Public opinion and evidence are now more than ever on the side of reform. The benefits of decriminalization and harm reduction programs were never so clear as they are today.

Completely legalizing cannabis would have been impossible in 1998. Now it is a reality in several US states, in Uruguay, and with Canada and others soon following suit. Even if the prohibitionist paradigm was always doomed to fail, it was never as evident as it is now, and people everywhere are standing up against failed and oppressive laws.

Because of all the small and big drug reform victories achieved in the past years, we were hoping to see some substantial change at the CND 2016. Unfortunately, we did not find many reasons to celebrate other than some progress made in language.

Too many key issues did not change. The final-outcome document lacks any acknowledgment of the failure of the war on drugs. It did not include anything about harm reduction nor ending death penalties for drug offenses. Nowhere is to be found a mention of how drug policies should be based on science or compassion.

In a nutshell: nothing about substantial drug policy reform. Most world leaders still dream of a “drug-free world.” There were a few notable interventions, such as the one from Uruguay.

Nonetheless, the CND was best described by three Latin American ex-presidents who wrote: “what was supposed to be an open, honest and data-driven debate about drug policies has turned into a narrowly conceived closed-door affair.”

Meanwhile in civil society, momentum toward drug policy reform seems to be at its best. The biggest good news of the past week was a report written by leading medical experts, and published in The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, calling for decriminalization and exploring legal regulation.

It seems that when it comes to drug laws, too many policy makers are still living in an alternate reality, divorced from what is going on in the real world.

Why progress made toward drug reform in so many different places has come with so little change at the UN level is a complex question for another time. UN consensus decision-making might be part of the explanation. Lack of significant participation of civil society and people who use drugs at a UN level might also be part of the answer.

However, we freedom activists know that we need to keep pushing toward drug reform if we want to live in a truly free society. We know we cannot expect drug reform to suddenly come down from the top.

We also know drug-related international treaties will only change or lose power once pressure from civil society becomes so overwhelming that it will be impossible for politicians to ignore. We are getting there, but as the past CND in Vienna showed us, there is still a long way to go.

As secondhand dealers in ideas, we will keep on shouting to end the war on drugs, so loud that policymakers will not be able to keep on ignoring us.

Alfredo Pascual received his Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration in Uruguay. He works as a Research Assistant for the Austrian Economics Center​ in Vienna, and he’s also a Students For Liberty Senior Local Coordinator.

This article is a shortened version of the original published on Students For Liberty’s blog.

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