The tremendous costs of the current drug control regime are by now obvious. The past few decades have seen hundreds of thousands of atrocities committed in the name of the prohibitionist policies — people being kidnapped and disappeared, marginalized, forcefully relocated and killed. Millions more are infected with blood-borne diseases such as HIV and HCV because they don’t have access to clean needles or substitution treatment, or suffer unnecessarily because bureaucracies withhold cheap, effective opioid pain medications. Clearly, existing drug control policies are failing.
There is reason to hope, however. Over the past several years, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Portugal, Catalonia, Bolivia and the Czech Republic have responded to local needs with local innovative drug policy solutions and provided much needed global leadership. In 2015, the global drug policy reform movement has made great strides and expanded the number of reformist voices, including countries of the Global South.
I am hopeful that momentum will continue as we head into the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the world drug problem in 2016 and well beyond — until there is a consensus for a more sensible global approach.
In the meantime, here are a few highlights from the drug policy reform movement this year:
Canada: Election of Justin Trudeau, who ran on a pro-regulation platform
Canada elected Justin Trudeau as its new prime minister in October, and his administration pledged to start working right away on a policy to regulate the sale of marijuana. In early December, the country’s Parliament announced it would introduce legislation in 2016 to legalize and regulate cannabis, which would make Canada the first in the G7 group of the world’s leading economies to do so. Trudeau is proof that openly discussing drugs and drug policy can help a campaign rather than hurt it-a fear expressed by many politicians across the globe.
Mexico: Ruling on marijuana citing human rights-based approach
The Mexican Supreme Court’s criminal chamber declared that individuals should have the right to grow, possess, distribute, and consume marijuana for their personal use. While the ruling did not strike down current drug laws, it laid the foundation for reforms and broke new ground by discussing regulation in terms of a human rights-based approach. The decision may be a reflection of a changing dynamic in Mexico, where a militarized and prohibitionist approach has resulted in 100,000 drug-related deaths in the past decade.
Colombia: Suspension of aerial fumigation of illegal coca fields
In October, under the leadership of President Santos, Colombia halted a decades-old aerial spraying policy after research demonstrated that the herbicide spray used on coca fields may cause cancer. Importantly for the region, the move marked a clear departure from U.S.-backed policies, which call for widespread eradication regardless of negative side effects such as public health risks, ecological damage, and the forced relocation of poor farming communities.
Jamaica: Decriminalization and regulation of cannabis
The Jamaican government voted to decriminalize possession of up to two ounces of marijuana and to regulate cannabis use for religious, scientific, and medical purposes, making it the first Caribbean nation to do so. The law also acknowledged the constitutional rights of the Rastafari community, which uses cannabis as a sacrament. Government leaders even put forth legislation to protect growers of new varieties of ganja plants with intellectual property rights.
United States: Release of drug offenders from federal prisons and introduction of new programs to aid ex-prisoners
A national movement is underway in the U.S. to reduce the prison population and review disproportionate sentencing for drug offenses. This fall, the U.S. Department of Justice released 6,000 prisoners, mostly low-level drug offenders. On December 18, President Obama granted clemency to another 95 federal prisoners convicted of drug-related crimes, including 40 who will be spared life terms, saying this was “another step forward in upholding our ideals of justice and fairness.” The Justice Department estimates that roughly 40,000 prisoners could benefit from the program in the coming years. Obama has also unveiled a number of initiatives to help formerly incarcerated individuals integrate back into society.
Oregon: Legalization of possession and implementation of homegrown production
In July, Oregon became the fourth state in the U.S. to regulate the cannabis market for people 21 and older. The new law allows individuals to carry up to an ounce of cannabis outside their homes and to possess eight ounces in their homes. Oregon is unique in that it permits people to grow up to four marijuana plants per residence, out of public view. A number of states are poised to follow suit in 2016, including California, which is often considered a bellwether for national trends.
Chile: Approval to grow medical marijuana and removal of marijuana from hard drugs list
In July, the Chamber of Deputies of Chile’s Congress approved a bill allowing Chileans to grow up to six marijuana plants in each home for medical, recreational, or spiritual use. The bill must still be approved by the health commission and the Senate, but it marks a major departure from the country’s severe treatment of drug possession in the past. In December, President Bachelet signed a decree removing marijuana from the list of dangerous drugs in an effort to decriminalize medical use, taking the country one step closer to legalization for recreational use.
Uruguay: Licensing given to businesses to grow cannabis
Uruguay, which in 2014 became the first country to legalize the cultivation, sale, and consumption of cannabis, took an important step in creating a regulated market for the drug this year, licensing two companies to grow about two tons each year. In 2016, the marijuana will be available for public purchase at pharmacies and will be sold at lower prices in other legalized markets.
Ireland: Opening of supervised injection facilities approved for 2016
At an event at the London School of Economics in November, Aodhan O Riordain, Ireland’s Minister of State at the Department of Health in charge of National Drugs, proposed that supervised injection facilities be introduced in Dublin in early 2016. Following his announcement, the country’s cabinet approved legislation to implement the proposal throughout the country.
The Way Forward
Real drug policy changes are possible. As we’ve seen this year, they often happen at the national level, and UNGASS will be an important moment to think about our collective approach to drugs and drug use, to challenge the prohibitionist regimes that undermine human rights, social justice, and public health. Reform-minded nations like the ones highlighted above can be leaders in that process.
I am confident we can build on their past success, and I look forward to what the future holds for the international drug policy reform movement in 2016.