by Claire Bernish
March 15, 2016
Slipping by virtually
the United States made a
surprising move last week
toward entirely ending the
and wholly ineffective
War on Drugs.
With the approach of the first Special Session of the U.N. General
Assembly to discuss international drug policy in nearly 18 years,
Bill Brownfield, Assistant Secretary of State for
International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, discussed
the potential for an historic shift in U.S. drug policy with a panel
on March 8th.
Seeking to return to a,
"greater focus on public health and
healthcare as relates to the drug issue, rehabilitation,
treatment, [and] education," Brownfield described what will be
"a pragmatic approach to reform… global drug policy."
Despite the moniker Land of the Free,
the U.S. recently fell under intense criticism after a number of
reports noted the country houses the largest prison population on
the planet - a fact President
Obama reluctantly admitted last summer.
Should it follow through with decriminalization as Brownfield
described, the U.S. government would be marking the first effort to
weaken the now-massive prison-industrial machine - including
the controversial, corrupt,
private prison corporations that
now dominate the criminal justice landscape.
"We will call for pragmatic and
concrete criminal justice reform, areas such as alternatives to
incarceration or drug courts, or sentencing reform," Brownfield
"In other words, as President Obama
has said many times publicly, to decriminalize much of basic
behavior in drug consumption in order to focus scarce law
enforcement resources on the greater challenge of the large
transnational criminal organizations.
"We will propose greater focus on what we call new psychoactive
These are the new drugs… which in
the 21st century the pharmaceutical industry can produce at a
faster rate than governments or… the United Nations system can
actually review and register."
Asked whether countries deciding to move
in the direction of
Portugal, which decriminalized all drugs
in a massive, successful effort to combat addiction, would be
penalized for breaking established international narcotics
guidelines, Brownfield stated the issue would not be for the U.S.
government to decide.
He explained wholesale reform of drug
policy couldn't possibly be applied in a one-size-fits-all format,
as individual countries are dealing with problems specific to their
As an example, Brownfield pointed to cannabis policy in the U.S.
"It is the position of the United
States government, for example, that despite the fact that four
of our states have voted to legalize the cultivation,
production, sale, purchase, and consumption of cannabis, or
marijuana, that we are still in compliance with our treaty
obligations, because first, the federal law, national law, still
proscribes and prohibits marijuana; and second, because the
objective, as asserted by the states themselves, is still to
reduce the harm caused by consumption [of] marijuana.
"Our argument is that at the end of the day, the issue is not
precisely whether a government has chosen to decriminalize or
not to decriminalize; it is whether the government is still
working cooperatively to reduce the harm caused by the product."
Several times, Brownfield emphasized the
necessity for policy reform to hold to international narcotics
conventions, but he also expressed optimism that "experimentation,
adjustment, and modification" of policy would nonetheless be
Drug policy experts, activists, and countless others have decried
Drug War's criminalization in
reference to treatment of what is largely viewed as an epidemic of
"The world is a different place in
2016 than it was in 1959 or 1960," Brownfield noted. "So, of
course, policy changes. Opinions change. Focus and priority
Set to take place around five weeks from
now, if the Ambassador's plans are well-received,
the UNGASS might produce the most
positive reforms to now-anachronistic drug policies since they were
imposed decades ago.
"At the end of the day, dangerous
drugs are a danger to anyone - right or left; Northern
Hemisphere, Southern Hemisphere; developing, developed;
industrial, agrarian - it doesn't matter. The harm is the same
on the human being," Brownfield asserted.
"But we must process it through the
realities of our planet today."