Was the UN About to Recommend Drug Decriminalization?

It might be just two pages long, but a leaked briefing paper purporting to be from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime is generating international controversy as readers debate whether it was advancing an official policy position on the part of the international agency. Did the UN just say that it thinks member nations should decriminalize drugs, or is the situation a little bit more complicated?

The paper is raising some important questions about the cost of drug policy either way, as most member nations have drug laws of varying degrees of strictness, and the social cost of such laws is considerable, eating up valuable time for police officers and the judicial system in addition to crowding jails and prisons with nonviolent offenders.

Before plunging into the specifics of the document, it’s important to remember that while the UN can make policy recommendations and encourage member nations to abide by them, it cannot set law within individual countries. For example, it can ban war crimes on an international level, but it can’t outlaw stop and frisk in New York City. This would be considered undue interference with the independence of member nations.

When the United Nations researches and develops policy documents, it does so with the intent of encouraging member nations to adopt them, and it provides supplemental materials to support them, but it’s up to individual countries to decide how they want to use the information.

At first glance, the UN seems like it might be growing more liberal. In 2012, the organization evaluated the risks of criminalizing sex work and explored the possibility of decriminalizing, thereby making it much safer for sex workers in member nations to practice their trade. This year, Amnesty International joined the call as well. In the case of both sex work and drug policy, it’s important to be aware that a significant gulf exists between “decriminalization” and “legalization,” though the terms are sometimes mistakenly used interchangeably.

When activities are decriminalized, that means they’re no longer illegal – but it doesn’t mean they’re entirely legal, either. Trends in marijuana policy in the United States are a perfect example. In California, marijuana for medical use is decriminalized, but it’s still viewed under a framework of existing legislation. There’s no legal framework, as there is in Colorado, for regulating the legal growth and sale of marijuana.

That distinction becomes important with the two page brief, which was prepared, sources allege, for a harm reduction conference in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia. It notes that the information discussed is designed to provide guidance to nations considering decriminalization, whether de facto (still illegal, but won’t be prosecuted) or de jure (reflecting actual changes in the law). UN researchers note that criminalization comes with extremely high social and economic costs, as prosecuting drug cases is expensive, and so is locking up those convicted of drug crimes.

Additionally, criminalization can increase the risk of behaviors that expose people to serious illness, such as reusing needles and transmitting blood-borne viruses like HIV, because people can’t access safe, clean sources of drugs and paraphernalia. This is one reason the paper makes sense in the context of a harm reduction conference, as this school of social work is rooted in the idea that many people will engage in given behaviors no matter their legality or risk. So, socially, it makes sense to reduce risk in order to promote overall public wellbeing – needle exchanges are a classic example of harm reduction policy.

Notably, some parts of the document go a step further, suggesting some member nations may actually have an obligation to consider decriminalization under conventions of international law. Specifically, it cites obligations to public health and wellbeing, making the argument that regressive drug policy can generate public health risks.

The United Nations would need to prepare a longer and more detailed policy paper in consultation with international lawyers to develop and support this claim. But it could prove to be an interesting argument in the push for changing drug policy around the world.

Representatives of the UN say the document was not intended as a formal policy declaration, but was rather for internal circulation and discussion. The Telegraph agrees with this commentary, noting that official policy guidelines are usually much longer, involve a variety of personnel and are typically announced by high ranking officials rather than being quietly leaked.

A policy recommendation of this magnitude would most certainly involve a formal press conference, at the very least. The BBC is claiming that the UN’s recommendations were thwarted by pressure from member nations displeased wth the proposal, but the UN also denies this, noting that it’s difficult to withdraw a formal white paper that hasn’t actually been issued. However, this may be a hint of changes to come, which could be a good sign for the decriminalization movement’s efforts around the world to promote sound drug policy.