By Phillip Smith
President Trump is in New York City for the United Nations General Assembly, but he’s going to kick off his appearance with an unofficial event aimed at promoting a tougher global line on drugs. He will host a meeting on “The World Drug Problem,” and countries that have agreed to sign on to a document circulated by the administration, “The Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem,” will be rewarded by being invited to the event and given the opportunity to “participate in a group photo” with the president.
“The purpose of this event is to demonstrate international political will to enhance efforts to effectively address and counter the serious threats posed by the world drug problem,” says an August 31 diplomatic note first reported by The Intercept.
In that note, the administration says it is already “collaborating” with a couple of dozen countries, but many of them are already proponents of harsh drug policy approaches. At least three of them—China, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore—are quick to resort to the death penalty for drug offenders, while others, such as Russia and the United Arab Emirates, are not exactly beacons of progressive drug policy. Yet other countries, including Costa Rica, India, and the United Kingdom, have signed on despite not hewing to draconian drug policy positions—perhaps just to stay on the right side of the mercurial and vindictive Trump.
Unlike the UN drug policy process, which involves lengthy, finely detailed study, negotiation, and consensus-building among member states and civil society actors, Trump’s Global Call is an attempt to impose the administration’s hardline drug war positions on other countries. The cover letter accompanying the Global Call makes clear that the text of the document “is not open for discussion.”
In Trump’s Global Call to Action, states agree to develop “action plans” based on a “four-pronged strategy” of demand reduction, drug treatment, international cooperation, and cutting the supply of illicit drugs that reflects the global drug policy consensus of a decade or two ago—not today.
Twenty years ago, the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs ended with a call for “a drug-free world.” That chimera, of course, never happened, and the UN’s political declaration in 2009 ratcheted down the rhetoric, calling merely for demand reduction, supply reduction, and international cooperation—language strikingly reminiscent of Trump’s current Global Call. But by the 2016 UNGASS on Drugs, the global community had moved beyond pure drug war theater, explicitly tying drug policy to human rights, access to health care, and sustainable development and implicitly endorsing harm reduction. The words “harm reduction” didn’t make it into the final UNGASS documents, but their spirit was present.
Trump’s Global Call also reverts to the sort of “eliminationist” language regarding drug cultivation that many countries have been moving away from. The strategy wants to “reduce” drug demand, but “cut off the supply” of drugs by “stopping” their production. Such language implies the resort to repressive eradication measures aimed at poor peasants in the developing world, a policy that has failed for decade after decade.
Drug policy advocates are raising the alarm over the administration’s moves.
“This Global Call to Action is a unilateral move orchestrated by the U.S. government that shows utter disregard for multilateralism and regular UN processes of negotiation and consensus. This is clearly an example of Trump attempting to wade into the international drug policy debate and create a splashy camera-ready opportunity, carefully orchestrated to create the appearance of support from dozens of other countries,” said Hannah Hetzer, senior international policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance.
Holding the event at the UN provides a “veneer of multilateralism and global accord, but these trappings of multilateralism should not be mistaken for a new-found global drug policy consensus,” the International Drug Policy Consortium declared. “Far from an effort at achieving mutual understanding and genuine consensus, it is an instance of heavy-handed U.S. ‘with us or against us’ diplomacy.”
The world need not leave global drug policy to the tender mercies of Donald Trump. In fact, it would be better off listening to one of the men who will address the Monday meeting: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. As president of Portugal, Guterres oversaw that country’s groundbreaking decriminalization of drug use and possession in 2001.
Or it could listen to the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which consists of the former presidents and prime ministers of Brazil, Chile, Colombia, East Timor, Greece, Malawi, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Poland, Portugal, and Switzerland. On Monday, the same day that Trump attempts to cement a repressive alliance, the commission is launching its new report, “Regulation: The Responsible Control of Drugs,” which calls for reforming the prohibition-based global drug control system and examines how responsible regulation can take control of currently illegal drug markets.
“President Trump is the last person who should be defining the global debate on drug policy. From his support of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal drug war to his call for the death penalty for people who sell drugs, Trump has shown complete disdain for human rights and international law,” warned Hetzer. “Governments should be very wary of signing on to this document and showing up for the photo op at Trump’s event.”