Yesterday morning, representatives from dozens of countries gathered at the United Nations General Assembly in New York for the US-led “Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem.” UN Ambassador Nikki Haley opened the event by thanking the 130 countries that have signed on to a letter penned by the US that calls upon countries to develop “action plans” to cut the demand and supply of illicit drugs. Some of the countries said to be “collaborating” with the US — China, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore, for example — have some of the world’s harshest drug penalties, including death.
Thousands of miles away, in Mexico City, in response to Trump’s meeting at the UN, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which includes 12 former heads of state and has been advocating for an end to prohibition since 2011, organized a gathering of its own on Monday, where it released a report calling on governments to abandon drug wars, regulate lower-potency drugs and adopt reforms to international treaties that require prohibition and punishment.
“Current drug policies are reducing neither the demand nor the supply of illegal drugs, quite the contrary, while the increasing power of organized crime is a sad reality,” Ruth Dreifuss, chair of the commission and former president of Switzerland, wrote in the report.
The juxtaposition of the two events was a striking example of the emerging global patchwork of drug laws: the US maintains prohibition amidst moves toward decriminalization and legalization in states, other North American countries like Canada and Mexico, and elsewhere abroad.
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During the UN event, which centered on cocaine and opium production worldwide, neither Haley nor President Donald Trump discussed how prescription drugs contributed to the opioid crisis in the US.
In the US, Haley said, “Everyone knows someone who has suffered or died from abusing illegal drugs.” The country, she went on, “is confronting a rapid opioid crisis that is fueled by the rapid increase in the illicit supply of synthetic drugs, like Fentanyl.” When speaking of the supply-side of the issue, the ambassador pointed to Latin America.
“We’ve been to coca fields and sat down with leaders in Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras. These countries are committed to doing good work to combat this crisis, work that benefits all of us,” said Haley.
Cannabis was notably absent from the discussion, though President Donald Trump devoted ample time to congratulate newly-elected President of Colombia, Iván Duque Márquez, who campaigned on an anti-drug platform. Duque has already drafted a decree that would enable police to confiscate any amount of illicit substances carried in public, including marijuana, though Colombians are allowed to possess up to 20 grams of cannabis. The Duque administration’s decree would also allow police officers to search people and their property for drugs.
Earlier this month, dozens of demonstrators gathered in the center of Bogotá, Colombia to stage a fumatón (“smoke-a-thon”) in protest against the decree. Following a drugs-focused meeting with Nikki Haley, who traveled to Colombia for his inauguration, Duque’s administration made public a draft of the decree the same week the protests took place.
According to the collective Sí a la dosis personal (“Yes to personal use”), which spearheaded the event on September 6, the protesters planned to smoke cannabis as they walked to Bolívar Plaza, the capital’s main public square. Before the march got started that morning, police in riot gear dispersed the crowd of about 80 people at the march meeting point, using tear gas and making at least six arrests.
But the protest did not end there. Hours later, demonstrators reconvened at Bolívar Plaza. By some estimates, roughly 300 people went on to protest the decree in front of the mayor’s office, Congress and the Palace of Justice.
Zara Snapp, an expert on Latin American drug policy, told Cannabis Wire that the decree is “essentially unconstitutional.”
In an interview with Radio Cadena Nacional, Eduardo Vélez, who heads the Sí a la dosis personal collective in Colombia, said it is a mistake to endow law enforcement with more authority, arguing that the measure could turn police officers into “street judges who could sanction a person for simple possession at any given time,” something akin to stop and frisk in the United States. The decree, he went on, could lead to more arrests and would further stigmatize the use of cannabis.
The “smoke-a-thon” in Colombia came on the heels of a highly-publicized arrest of cannabis activists in Mexico. In late August, police officers arrested members of the Escuadrón Cannábico (“the Cannabis Squad”) collective, which had been offering cannabis as part of an “exchange” on Paseo de la Reforma, the country’s most emblematic avenue.
The Escuadrón Cannábico had been putting up a table lined with jars of cannabis, bongs, edibles, salves and oils—all within sight of tourist attractions, restaurants, hotels and even government buildings—since at least last May. Then, on August 29, moments after a Mexican news outlet reported on their activities, authorities descended on the collective, seized its property, and arrested its members.
The activists’ push in Mexico is a response to President Enrique Peña Nieto’s decision in June of last year to legalize some forms of medical cannabis. The Ministry of Health had 180 days to publish accompanying regulations for its use. In October 2017, health authorities published a draft and opened it up for comments from civil society and experts on the subject. Now, more than a year since the ruling, Mexican citizens still have no guidelines.
Moreover, although Mexican law has decriminalized the possession of up to five grams of cannabis, its sale is prohibited. And though the activists claimed they were engaged in an “exchange,” they were actually selling cannabis and cannabis-based products.
Snapp told Cannabis Wire that the arrests in Colombia and Mexico are both “a symptom of prohibition,” and, in the latter case, a result of health authorities’ failure to do their job. Several Mexican lawmakers agree and have formally asked COFEPRIS to publish the medical cannabis regulations.
Despite the Trump administration’s encouragement of an enforcement-heavy approach, countries across the globe are opening access to both recreational and medical cannabis. Further, a global cannabis industry is emerging, as Canada prepares for legal sales next month; companies there are already exporting products to Europe and establishing partnerships in Latin America.
The commission that met in Mexico City yesterday said that the Trump administration’s Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem “signals the continuation of inefficient, costly and harmful policies.”
Their report went on, “The US government, which tried and abandoned alcohol prohibition, and now faces an unprecedented opioid crisis, should know this better than anyone – especially at a time when numerous states are moving away from prohibition and towards regulation.”