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    UNGASS: First Step to International Legalization of Marijuana


    UNGASS 2016 May Signal an International Shift Regarding Drug Control and Legalization

    In 1971, Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon introduced the war on drugs to the world by declaring drugs and drug users/abusers “public enemy number one.” The initial plan to combat this “enemy” was for eradication, interruption of shipments and sales, and incarceration. Today, the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for an end to the war on drugs, estimates that the United States spends $51 billion annually on these initiatives.

    For years, governments have called for a new approach to the ineffective international war on drugs. Pressed by Latin American Member State leaders, the United Nations General Assembly, the policy-making portion of the United Nations, is finally listening to this outcry for change.

    The United Nations General Assembly plans to hold a review of drug control policies during a Special Session taking place April 19–21, 2016, in New York City. This session is called UNGASS 2016.

    What is UNGASS?

    In a nutshell, UNGASS may be the first step towards international legalization, but just in case you want the full picture of what UNGASS is, here is the detailed answer.

    The United Nations General Assembly Special Session, or UNGASS, is a meeting of UN Member States to assess and debate global issues. This Special Session will be an important benchmark in assessing policy goals set in the 2009 document, "Political Declaration and Plan of Action on International Cooperation towards an Integrated and Balanced Strategy to Counter the World Drug Problem," which defined actions to be taken and goals to be achieved by Member States comprising the UN by 2019.

    At the request of Latin American Members states, including Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala, a Special Session was requested to assess “the achievements and challenges in countering the world drug problem.”

    Why does this Special Session matter?

    UNGASS 2016 will an opportunity to reevaluate the so-called war on drugs and the antiquated drug policies adopted by many countries, including the United States. It may also be the first step towards international legalization.

    As evidence mounts that the global drug war has been a costly failure, the idea of a unified global effort for reform has never been stronger. Demand for a major overhaul of global drug policy has been gaining momentum, both in the U.S. and abroad.

    In December 2015, Colombia made a bold move to legalize medical marijuana. Colombia will be one of many countries that have joined a growing reform delegation that will be front and center at UNGASS 2016. By legalizing medical marijuana, Colombia is one of many Latin American nations from Mexico to Uruguay to Chile who have moved either towards decriminalizing marijuana or allowing for its medicinal use, or both.

    But why should I care?

    There are many reasons to care, but one of the main reasons you should care is the money that you and I are paying for this so-called war. In 2010, the U.S. federal government spent over $15 billion dollars on the war on drugs at a rate of about $500 per second. (Source: Office of National Drug Control Policy).

    More than 1.5 million drug arrests are made every year in the U.S. and the overwhelming majority of these arrests are for possession only.

    Decriminalizing drug possession can provide several major benefits for public safety and health, such as:

    • Significantly reducing the number of people arrested and incarcerated;
    • Increasing intake into drug treatment;
    • Reducing criminal justice costs and redirecting resources from criminal justice to health systems;
    • Redirecting law enforcement resources to prevent serious and violent crime;
    • Addressing racial disparities in drug law enforcement and sentencing, incarceration and related health outcomes;
    • Minimizing stigma and creating a climate in which people who use drugs are less fearful of seeking and accessing treatment, utilizing harm reduction services and receiving HIV/AIDS services; and
    • Protecting people from the wide-ranging and debilitating consequences of a criminal conviction

    Ways to get involved and to gain further education

    Stay informed and get vocal! It is clear that the original plan for the so-called war on drugs has not worked. It is time to develop more realistic and more progressive ideas. Call and/or email your state representatives to lobby for more progressive drug policies.

    To stay current with all the events and happenings around UNGASS, websites have been created by organizations, such as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the International Drug Policy Consortium. These websites, and many others, will be updated to keep the global community informed about the timeline of important dates leading up to the April UNGASS and the various topics to be discussed.

    That status quo and the same old, same old mentality of doing things when it comes to drug policies have been proven ineffective. UNGASS may be the start of an international conversation that could lead to revamped drug policies. Stay tuned!