There was a time when we expected that the end of aggressive American interventionism would open the gates to drug policy reform. We are now at the dawning of a new multipolar world order, but it is not only the spirit of reform that has been released from the bottle. (Russian translation here!)
I remember when I was invited to a meeting organised by the US government in Budapest in 2004, just a few months after I got a job at the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union to lead its drug policy program. The world was different then. A few years after 9/11, at the height of the war on terror and the war on drugs, the Bush administration behaved like the policeman of the world. Its actions were led by an arrogant neoconservative ideology, and a strong belief that American policies must be exported to other parts of the world, including Hungary. The meeting was a weird PR event, promoting the abstinence-based, zero-tolerance, US-style approach to drug policy that was dominating the global arena, including the UN drug forums and agencies. It was an eye-opening experience for me.
I came to believe that the greatest obstacle to drug policy reform was the USA’s dominance in drug policies, including the three UN drug control treaties (1961, 71, 88), forged by American narco-diplomacy. What we needed was more freedom for member states to move away from rigid compliance with these treaties, allowing governments to experiment with new policies and stopping the US from forcing its policies on other countries. People had to take back control from supranational bureaucrats and technocrats to pursue their own drug policies, protecting national sovereignty from international pressure.
Fourteen years later, I am wondering what could have changed more: America or the world around it. The war on drugs, although far from over, has lost its appeal to the American people. More and more US states are deciding to legalise marijuana, a move unimaginable back in 2004. The US is no longer the world’s policeman, on the contrary, it seems to be submerging itself in isolationism. The American hegemony is waning, its strong leadership in international processes, including the UN, is of the past. Multilateralism is decaying and international treaties and mechanisms are losing ground. Many emerging new powers are challenging the old system and the world is becoming a multipolar place, with growing emphasis on national sovereignty. Stephen Hopgood calls it the neo Westphalian world order, The Economist writes about the emergence of new nationalism.
Is it good news or bad news for the global drug policy reform movement? It’s difficult to say.
If you look at the tremendous change that has been taking place in the UN’s global drug policy discourse, than we have good news: the directions and the language of the debate is changing rapidly for the better. New issues are on the agenda, human rights violations are in the spotlight, harm reduction is no more a taboo, civil society has a strong voice. It is also good news that the war on drugs is declining in the US, the country that forced the world to adopt this approach in the first place. The opiate crisis, terrible as it is, can be seen as an opportunity to recalibrate the regime beyond pot legalisation – to depart from the zero-tolerance dogma and embrace innovation.
The changing global environment allows countries in the Global South, especially in Latin-America, to experiment with new policy approaches. Uruguay is the first nation state to legalise marijuana, the new Mexican president is preparing to end the war on drugs. Cannabis social clubs flourish in Spain, Dutch cities are experimenting with legal cannabis cultivation. In general, individual countries have more freedom to decide how they want to regulate drugs and deviate from the spirit and letter of the drug conventions.
But the decline of multilateralism and the rise of national sovereignty have their downsides. If we expected that there would be a convergence of drug policies in the post-American world order, moving toward a more humane and less repressive approach, we were wrong. What we see instead is a growing divide between different drug policy models. In some countries drug policy reform has stepped on the accelerator, while in other countries drug policies are propelled to an unprecedented level of repression, with massive violations of human rights. These countries use the protection of national sovereignty to reject any criticisms of their heinous acts of violence, including warnings from UN drug control agencies.
Although their economic and military power cannot yet rival that of the US, Russia and China both have ambitions to take over the role of the world’s policeman. They cannot block drug policy reform on a global scale (at least not yet) but their influence is growing in Central and South-East Asia and beyond. The EU, paralysed by a series of crises, will likely have less leverage to counterbalance this influence. The progress many countries have made in harm reduction in previous decades is unstable. Where democracy, human rights, and harm reduction could not take strong roots, and where services depend on international support, the danger of Putinisation is real. Africa, a continent with the most rapidly growing young population – and thus, drug market – will likely become an important battleground among different drug policy models in the future.
We always celebrated countries defying the criticism of UN drug agencies (or the US government) and pushing forward with drug policy reform. Leave these countries alone and let them experiment, we said. Now we are looking on with growing horror as the president of the Philippines threatens to quit the UN after its agencies urged Manila to stop extra-judicial killings. Leave us alone and don’t meddle in our domestic drug policies, Duterte says.
National sovereignty proved to be a double-edged sword. If international treaties, agencies, and multilateral cooperation mechanisms are losing their authority and power, how can we expect them to intervene effectively when autocrats are killing drug users on the street? How can we push reluctant governments to comply with Sustainable Development Goals, or other essential commitments?
New autocrats emerge who challenge liberal democracy, multilateralism, and universal human rights. Civil society is under attack in many countries, including NGOs fighting for drug policy reform. Waning international commitment to fighting HIV/AIDS is fuelling the funding crisis for harm reduction. International donors are retreating, services are shut down, and vulnerable communities are left alone to die. It’s hard not to see that the same vulnerable communities fell victim to the war on drugs who are also devastated by neoliberal “reforms” and austerity measures. Innovative communication technologies we once celebrated as great tools for improving transparency and accountability are now used by corporations and governments to generate noise, manipulating people and silencing criticism.
These developments revealed how fragile this international system of laws, treaties, and mechanisms is that was created after WW2 to prevent another global disaster. It depends on US military and economic power and therefore it has never mirrored a real global consensus, and has too often been used as a tool for imperialism. In a world that is so unequal geographically and socially, where a small minority of the global population, living mostly in Western Europe and North America, owns the vast majority of wealth and resources, where real decisions are often made behind the scenes without the involvement of affected people (think about the Greek financial crisis), growing discontent and frustration is inevitable. This frustration is what fuels new nationalism, conflating multilateralism and interventionism, civil society and global elites, human rights and imperialism.
For me the lesson learnt is that real and sustainable drug policy reform is inseparable from reforming the global system itself – reducing social inequalities, regaining control over power and wealth, rebuilding economic redistribution, ending the irresponsible exploitation of natural resources for profit, and making governments transparent and accountable.
Our job is not just lobbying governments/agencies for more funding and better laws. It is not just writing reports to a handful of educated people to change the elite discourse on drug policies. We need to do more to educate the public about how drug policies are used by the rich and powerful to repress and discipline the weak and poor. We should find new alliances, partnerships, and cooperation with other social justice movements to empower together the most vulnerable communities. Only together we can change this unjust global system.