04/10/16 Doug McVay

Century of Lies

This week on Century Of Lies we continue to look ahead at the UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs that will be held April 19-21 at UN Headquarters in New York, and hear from Donald MacPherson of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and Aram Barra with Mexico United Against Crime.

Audio file


APRIL 10, 2016


DEAN BECKER: The failure of drug war is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors, and millions more now calling for for decriminalization, legalization, the end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century Of Lies.

DOUG MCVAY: Hello, and welcome to Century Of Lies. Century Of Lies is a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

The United Nations General Assembly Special Session on drugs will be April 19th through 21st at UN Headquarters in New York City. It's going to be the first real opportunity in almost twenty years for the world's leaders to review progress in the drug war and the effectiveness of global drug policies. Last time, in 1998, in spite of the efforts of nonprofits and others in civil society, the UN General Assembly decided that they could make a drug free world by 2008.

As you may have noticed, that didn't work out.

In the last few years, a growing number of UN member states have embraced progressive drug policy reforms, effective evidence-based policies including harm reduction, substitution treatment, decriminalization of possession and use, even legal regulation of production and sale. Those nations will speak out at this year's UNGASS, supported by civil society, and by people like you, dear listener. Our voices, amplified many many times over, are finally being heard. Global prohibition will not come to an immediate end after this year's UNGASS but what will happen is that the process of ending the drug war will finally get underway, at the very highest levels.

The US Ad Hoc Coalition for Global Drug Policy Reform was created not long ago to help coordinate the efforts of reform-minded nonprofits and activists working on this year's UNGASS. They held a news teleconference earlier this week, which I sat in on. Let's give it a listen. The first voice you hear will be that of David Borden, executive director of the Drug Reform Coalition Network. He introduces the next two speakers, Donald MacPherson from Canada, and Aram Barra from Mexico.

DAVID BORDEN: Hi, I'm David Borden, executive director of StopTheDrugWar.org. Before we launch into the presentations, I note that on the 19th to the 21st of this month, the United Nations will hold its highest level session on drug policy in almost 20 years, the UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem, or UNGASS. My organization coordinates a primarily US coalition, working with coalitions in other countries, which advocates on global drug policy from a US perspective, that is, US foreign policy and the US's diplomatic stances on drug policy in international fora.

With respect to the legalization issue specifically, the salient points for global drug policy are the three UN drug conventions, which include language that is problematic for legalization, and how moves toward legalization get interpreted in the face of such language until the treaties can be updated.

Regrettably, the US delegation opposed having any discussion of possible treaty reforms at this UNGASS, although statements made by State Department officials at various times have argued for the right of countries to set their own drug policies, including going the legalization route if they choose this. Our coalition has argued that the US's position with respect to the drug conventions is likely to face shrinking credibility internationally as legalization spreads to more states, and especially if, or more likely when, Congress moves to provide federal legality of marijuana for such states.

Our letter to President Obama urged that the US delegation clarify that, quote, "commitment to the three UN drug conventions, the language used in the preliminary US UNGASS document, does not mean that these treaties, written variously between 27 and 55 years ago, should remain unchanged," and that the US should support a proposal offered by several countries for a UN expert advisory group, which would study the tensions that have arisen in the international drug control regime due to marijuana legalization and other issues, and to lay out the range of options for moving forward.

Next we hear from Donald MacPherson. Donald previously worked as North America's first drug policy coordinator for the city of Vancouver in British Columbia, and he now heads the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. He is a leading Canadian advocate for drug policy reform. Thanks for joining us, Don.

DONALD MACPHERSON: Thank you, and it's a pleasure to be here. Good afternoon. It's great to be here with my colleagues from Canada and Mexico, and of course the US reform movement. The Canadian Drug Policy Coalition has long contended that it is important to work with organizations and the government in Mexico to help move our friends in the US forward on drug policy issues. It is great that things are moving in all three countries on the cannabis file.

In Canada, the issue of cannabis legalization has been discussed for many years. In 2003-4, there was an attempt to decriminalize cannabis for personal possession that was put forward by the Liberal government of the day, but it didn't pass. Canada also has a well developed medical cannabis infrastructure that's been evolving since 2000, and that will come into play as we move towards regulation.

Currently, 60 percent of Canadians support creating a legal regulated market for cannabis, and it's great that the government is listening to the Canadian citizens. This has been the case for a number of years. We have advocated that civil society be very involved in the process that the government is developing and we're delighted that the government is developing a process. We urge them to not take too long with getting this out of the gate, and we're not sure who's going to be involved, but we think civil society has a great deal of expertise to contribute to whatever process that unfolds in the near future.

Also, the public health community in Canada is very well prepared for this process, and in fact, has been calling for legal regulation of cannabis for a number of years as a way to begin to create healthy contexts for cannabis use, something that is not going to go away. Cannabis is with us to stay.

We understand creating legal regulated markets within our federation of provinces and territories will take some time, perhaps up to one or two years, but encourage the government to move quickly as they can to eliminate illegal markets and stop enforcing the prohibition for possession of cannabis in Canada while this process is taking place. Policing authorities need clarity in how to proceed in this transitional space, and I'm heartened by Mister Erskine's commitment to try and get the government to address this issue of enforcing a law which the government itself has said is something that needs to be changed.

Finally, with regard to the UN meeting coming up in a few days, we hope that Canada and other countries, perhaps Mexico, will be clear in that forum that the international drug treaties need to be reformed. With Uruguay, the US, and soon Canada in legalizing cannabis, in our opinion which is a breach of the treaties, it is time that the UN create a process to talk about treaty reform coming out of the UN meeting. This could take the form of an expert committee. It's a great opportunity for Canada to initiate a multi-lateral process with other countries like Mexico and Uruguay, and hopefully the US, to address the problem with the treaties, which clearly need to be updated, as has been mentioned before.

So, we hope Canada is firm in its commitment. We have no doubt that this government will move towards regulation, and we await to be involved in the process to see how we can shape one of the best systems in the world. Thank you.

DAVID BORDEN: Thanks, Don. And finally, we will hear from Aram Barra. Aram is a program officer at Mexicans United Against Crime and the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, and he is a leading Mexican advocate for drug policy reform. Of particular interest today is that Aram is also a member of the Mexican Society for Responsible and Tolerant Personal Use, or SMART, and through that is a party to one of the cannabis club cases, like one that recently had a victory at Mexico's Supreme Court, but one of a set of cases that are currently pending in the Supreme Court. Thank you for joining us, Aram.

ARAM BARRA: Thank you, David, and thank you to the organizers of the panel. As mentioned, my name is Aram Barra, and I currently work for Mexico United Against Crime, which is a nongovernmental organization that for 20 years has been working on culture of lawfulness and culture of legality, and I think this is interesting to note because, after almost 15 years of work on these subject areas, we have now realized that it's impossible to procure justice and security if we do not reform drug policy and establish a regulated drug market.

It is because of this that, as they have mentioned, we have dedicated at least five years now to this objective, and more recently through the judicial power of Mexico. Mexico has taken, in this sense, to the courts on the matter. In fact, and as Dave mentioned, my organization, MUCD, undertook a legal strategy that brought us to the Supreme Court last November Fourth, in which a ruling in our favor permitted not only four people, which are board members of MUCD, to grow, possess, and use cannabis for personal use, but much more importantly, in my opinion, it declared five key articles of our general health law, those are the foundation of prohibition in Mexico, to be unconstitutional.

In a historic vote, the first room of the highest constitutional body in the country granted an injunction to a group of four citizens who questioned the constitutionality of the prohibition of marijuana. It is very important to say that the main purpose behind this writ, that we started in 2013, was to question whether liberal democracies can intervene in the private lives of individuals to prohibit the deliberate and conscious consumption of substances such as cannabis.

In the context -- in Mexico, in the context of violence and lack of political leadership, we believe the Supreme Court of Justice of the nation behaved at the height of the debate to endorse the supremacy of human rights of Mexican citizens. With this demand, with this ruling in our favor, the country's highest court declared, as I said, unconstitutional the provisions contained in Articles 235, 237, 245, 247, and 248, of the general health law. This says, it accepts that the prohibitionist policy for cannabis is unconstitutional, and it is disproportionate, and it unnecessarily restricts the fundamental rights of people.

Now, the consequences of this ruling are, in my view, two-fold. First, it lays the path by which other people can protect their human rights in court if they decide to do so. In fact, we know of around 200 new cases that are currently being litigated on the judicial power of Mexico. In the case of Mexico, differently from the US and Canada, if four more cases are ruled on the same sense, uninterrupted with at least four votes in the same chamber, these creates jurisprudence, and law is therefore changed.

Secondly, and probably more important, it has opened up a long-needed debate in the country. The current president of the Senate, the speaker of the upper house, as Senator Rojas just mentioned, and also a party colleague of Senator Rojas, Roberto Gil, opened up a rather interesting debate right after the ruling of the court, that in my view has attempted to look at as many policy models as possible, calling on experts, academics, and on people who use drugs themselves to define a new model to control drug policy in Mexico, in response to the ruling of the court.

In fact, yesterday, Senator Gil introduced a bill at the Senate that proposes to strictly regulate the cannabis market through a licensed system that is rather similar to the Canadian medical model. If passed, as it currently stands, which we don't expect it to do, the model would integrate, first, access for personal purposes through self-cultivation, and, the definition of a state monopoly, very much in line with the Uruguayan model. And secondly, an access to medical and therapeutical cannabis, both through the pharmaceutical system, but also through more traditional means.

Regardless of how the legislative debate moves forward, what is clear today is that we cannot continue with the current punitive drug system. In fact, the Supreme Court of Mexico confirms with this ruling what many of us already knew, and that is the drug policy today violates human rights that our constitution defends. Before this reality, a radical change is needed in how we will deal with drugs in the future.

Finally, and to touch a tiny bit on the Special Session on drugs from the General Assembly, while we would like -- while we would have liked to bring a more profound policy change at the domestic level as part of Mexico's official position for UNGASS, reality has proven over the past few years to be a lot tougher to change than our expectations intended. Therefore, Mexico, as Senator Rojas already mentioned, as well as many other countries from Latin America, will simply come into the UNGASS rooms to say that it is very clear to us that the current model is not working. That's it. What the rest of the world may do with that statement, that is the question I think that's laid before the UNGASS. Thank you very much.

DOUG MCVAY: That was from a news teleconference earlier this week. It was organized by the Ad Hoc Coalition for Global Drug Policy Reform, which is facilitated by David Borden of DRCNet and StopTheDrugWar.org. You heard David, followed by Donald MacPherson from Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, and also Aram Barra, he is a program officer at the Latin American Drug Policy Reform Program for Transform Drug Policy Foundation and is also with the group Mexico United Against Crime. You can hear more of that news conference on the latest edition of our sister program, Cultural Baggage, on the web at DrugTruth.net.

You're listening to Century Of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

Now, let's get back to it. The other speakers at that news conference were Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, a member of the Canadian Parliament's House of Commons, and Laura Angelica Rojas Hernandez, a member of the Senate of Mexico. They took questions after everyone spoke, let's get to some of those.

KRISTEN GWYNNE: My question is for Mr. Erskine-Smith, and it is whether legalization in the US has been influential to discussions about particular regulations in Canada as you move forward, looking to legalize and whether there are any regulations in particular that you think are effective or ineffective that you would stray from, and also, whether the emergence of the cannabis industry in the US has -- is informing your decision to make a public versus private model?

NATHANIEL ERSKINE-SMITH: So, first, the legalization efforts in the United States have been helpful to show Canadians who are a bit concerned about regulation and legalization that it is possible, and that it can be done in a more orderly way. I think it's always helpful to learn from other jurisdictions' mistakes, so I think Colorado in particular adopted a commercial model that doesn't quite fit with the public health approach that I think we'd like to move towards. So the Canadian -- uh, so, the Center of Addiction and Mental Health in Canada has actually come out in favor of legalization, but come out in favor of legalization in a very regulated -- in a very regulated way, and focusing on public health. And that is closer to the model that I think we would pursue.

KRISTEN GWYNNE: Mm-hmm. And could you just elaborate a little bit more about Colorado, in particular, and what specifics of the law don't hold up to a public health approach?

NATHANIEL ERSKINE-SMITH: So, specifically, you know, and different jurisdictions will want to treat, or regulate the sale and distribution, differently, so in Canada, British Columbia is going to perhaps look at regulating marijuana differently than Alberta. They have different marketplaces, and they view marijuana in a different way. So, when we look at Colorado, you know, I don't want to impugn their policies, but when we look at the, and I'll just take commercial advertising as a specific example, that NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in Canada has even suggested a public health approach by limiting our commercial advertising rules, and so, really, what we want to do is we want to negate the negative effects of prohibition, we want to treat Canadians like the responsible adults that they are, but we don't want to rush into legalization and say it's, and perhaps have increased consumption beyond what we currently have. And I think we -- it's important to take a cautious approach, to show Canadians that the model can be successful.


TELECONFERENCE OPERATOR: Thank you for the question. The next question will come from Doug McVay with KBOO radio and Pacifica Radio networks.

DOUG MCVAY: The pushback against reform is being led at the UN by nations like Russia and Singapore. At the recent Commission on Narcotic Drugs annual meeting, the delegate from Singapore expressed his nation's desire for quote “a drug-free society, not a drug-tolerant one.” He also said that Singapore believes in harm prevention, as opposed to harm reduction. I'm wondering, how would you respond? I'd love to hear what Don would have to say.

DONALD MACPHERSON: Well, I think you've summed it up. We've made a huge point over the last almost twenty years, since 1998, at the last UNGASS, when the motto was "A Drug Free World, We Can Do It" by 2008. And 2008 came and there was, you know, a lot of action around that. I find it hard to understand, really, why countries are holding, countries like Russia and Singapore are holding other countries hostage to, actually, as one of our guests said today, modernizing the drug treaties. They really do need to be modernized, and I think the most recent round of negotiations at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs was deplorable, and the outcome document that came out of that process is quite awful.

You can find some minor progressive movement towards 2016, and the scientific evidence that we have today on drugs and drug policy, but it's really alarming that the, this document is going to the UNGASS, and there's also a rumor that there may -- it may be adopted at the beginning of the UNGASS, which would be, I think, a travesty and make a mockery of the whole show. So at the very least it needs to be adopted at the end of the UNGASS.

And that is why organizations and governments, some governments, are beginning to call for a mechanism post-UNGASS to get real with the situation of the modernizing of the treaties, and the need for that. And I think it's really important that member states, UN member states, speak strongly for the need for that mechanism. Whether it's an expert committee or some other sort of group, that several countries have called for, it needs to happen before, the next three years are critical, around twenty, coming up in 2019. So we really do need that process in place to deal with the sort of intransigence of other countries, which, in a consensus based model, really hold the progress ransom.

DAVID BORDEN: I'll add to that, this is David Borden. A number of Asian and Middle Eastern countries have the death penalty for nonviolent drug offenses. Iran has executed nearly a thousand people in the last year, mostly for drug offenses. Any discussions at the UNGASS, and you can read transcripts on a website called the CNDBlog, published by an organization we're allied with, the International Drug Policy Consortium. But, a number of these countries have not only sworn their allegiance to the drug control conventions, as many countries did, including western ones, but a number of them actively stated that there's a need to oppose legalization, not go to that route.

Well, these same countries are saying, I mean, of the west, the UN doesn't tell them what to do, it's their internal decision what kind of drug policies they have, and if they think that the death penalty is a proportionate punishment for nonviolent drug offenses, that's what they think. Well, they're actively telling the rest of the world that it's not okeh to do legalization, so they're trying to tell the rest of us what to do. So there's nothing consistent whatsoever in the positions of these countries that are saying it's our business, and that we have nothing to say in terms of human rights.

The second point I'll make, and I think this point is particularly important for Europe, if we have anyone here who's writing for those audiences. The European delegations at the CND last month, for anyone who doesn't that the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the UN body with a subset of the member states that meets, last month was its major annual session. The European delegations worked really hard for language opposing the death penalty in this context. I believe they argued late into the night on the last night before a final draft document for UNGASS was finalized. But, realistically, it's going to be hard to get that past China, which has the death penalty for drugs, it's probably going to get -- Russia will probably object to it as well. It's a fight worth fighting, but, returning to this question of the treaties, legalization, and flexibility, the EU and the European, most European governments, regrettably have avoided this question in the same way that the US and many other countries have.

This has led to an over-reliance on the flexibility concept for what countries can do with their drug policies, as a number of us have discussed already. And that idea of flexibility, again, is being used by these countries with hardline policies to justify policies like the death penalty that violate human rights. And so, this weak stance by the EU and EU member countries on the question of the treaties' flexibility, the implications of legalization, is already having some negative rebound in terms of an issue that Europeans feel very deeply about, which is stopping the death penalty.

And one last thing I'll note on this is that a couple of European countries actually opposed the creation of this expert advisory group in their statements. One of those is Spain, which arguably has more than any or almost any European country at stake in this. I'm referring to Spain's cannabis social clubs, certainly seem to call for the UN updating of the treaty. That's assuming the clubs survive scrutiny by Spain's courts, and it's unclear what will happen there, but I think that's a highly counter-productive position for the US and Spain, of all countries, with what's happening with our marijuana policies, to actually oppose even discussing options for treaty reform in the most important international meeting on drugs in two decades.

DOUG MCVAY: That was from a news teleconference earlier this week that was organized by the Ad Hoc Coalition for Global Drug Policy Reform, which is facilitated by David Borden of DRCNet and StopTheDrugWar.org. You heard David, also Donald MacPherson, with the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition; Aram Barra, from the Latin American Drug Policy Reform Program of Transform Drug Policy Foundation and also with the group Mexico United Against Crime; and Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, a member of the House of Commons in the Canadian Parliament.

That's it for today. Thank you for joining us. You've been listening to Century Of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org. You can follow me on Twitter, I'm @DougMcVay and of course also @DrugPolicyFacts. The Drug Truth Network is on Facebook, please give it a like. Drug War Facts is on Facebook too, give it a like and share it with friends. Remember: Knowledge is power.

We'll be back next week with another thirty minutes of news and information about the drug war and this Century Of Lies. For now, for the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay saying so long. So long!

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition: the century of lies. Drug Truth Network programs archived at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.