Whatever your view of the UN’s effectiveness as an institution, its original remit is pretty impressive as a statement of ethical practice. The three pillars of peace and security, development and human rights are lofty aims that any socially aware investor or business might admire and see fit to emulate. So how did it come to pass that an organisation set up to promote peace is now overseeing a drug war with untold thousands of casualties a year, that by its own admission creates insecurity, hinders development, damages health and spawns countless human rights abuses – and why is global drug policy proving so resistant to reform?
Consensus decision-making in a highly complex and polarised policy area is, of course, always a tough ask. In the area of drug policy, where emotions run high and moralistic rhetoric often beats genuine evidence, even discussion can be difficult, let alone agreement.
Nicky Saunter, Transform Drug Policy Foundation
This question is particularly pertinent now because the UN General Assembly is holding a Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) in New York 18-21 April – a once in a decade opportunity for all 193 member states to discuss the future of drug control, under the optimistic title of “A Better World for Tomorrow’s Youth”. Requested by Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala – all countries whose people have suffered acutely from the drug war – it specifically aimed to review the current system and “analyse all available options, including regulatory or market measures”. There was talk of real consultation, open participation and innovation. The legalisation of drugs, which has happened already in Uruguay and four US states and Washington DC, might be on the table for the first time. Yet none of this is going to happen and the UN summit is expected to endorse the status quo.
Consensus decision-making in a highly complex and polarised policy area is, of course, always a tough ask. In the area of drug policy, where emotions run high and moralistic rhetoric often beats genuine evidence, even discussion can be difficult, let alone agreement. For the last 50 years, the US has been the driver of the drug war, but since its own impressively democratic system has allowed for the legalisation of cannabis at state level, the administration has gone noticeably quiet and Russia has occupied the role of drug war cheerleader. But the lack of proper debate cannot be blamed on Russia alone. Smaller states, including the UK and France (notably silent European members of the Security Council), rarely speak out in such an environment for a variety of political and economic reasons, yet they should. The UN General Assembly is the one place where all states have equal weight; if they are not willing to speak out here, then the system is not fit for purpose.
Surely we can incorporate our learning from the disastrous impact of the tobacco trade into developing a humane system of regulation that puts governments not gangsters in charge of the drug trade?
Nicky Saunter, Transform Drug Policy Foundation
Behind this of course sits the money. On the illegal side, we have what the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) itself described as “a criminal market of macroecomonic size” worth an estimated $320 billion annually, which fuels corruption, violence and other illegal activities, distorts economies, funds private armies and threatens international security. However, perfectly legal industries also benefit: as military and prison budgets swell in response to this “threat” – which critics, including Transform, argue was created by making drugs illegal in the first place – new vested interests are created in governments who pay lip service to evidence-based policy and in the industries they promote. Banking is particularly at risk of being caught in the middle, as seen with HSBC, famously caught laundering billions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels and now being sued by a group of American families disgusted with the lack of accountability.
At the other end of the curve sits big business, waiting for legalisation to bring in giant profits and with no reason to care about the consequences unless they are bound by ethical principles or strict legal regulation. Surely we can incorporate our learning from the disastrous impact of the tobacco trade into developing a humane system of regulation that puts governments not gangsters in charge of the drug trade? A good template already exists in the form of the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, devised to control a dangerous drug for which demand remains high.
As a believer in the power of business to inspire, innovate and help communities to flourish, I am disappointed in the silence from the business community on this issue. Only in countries like Mexico, where drug policy itself is a threat to the legitimate economy, have business people come together to call for reform. A few lone voices with enough money and public profile not to care what people think, such as George Soros and Richard Branson, have so far stepped forward. Yet drug taking is part of normal life for 270 million people around the world, most of them employees, stakeholders or shareholders. Few of them have any problem with their drug taking and those that do should be helped via their health system rather than being marginalised or dumped in prison. It is time for the ethical business community to speak out and perhaps some of the delegates at the UNGASS will find their voice.
Nicky is an entrepreneur with 20 years’ experience of setting up, building, managing and financing companies, from retail to manufacturing, with a strong emphasis on sustainability, ethical business and social enterprise. Co-founder of the Bristol-based Boston Tea Party group, Nicky more recently headed up social enterprise Learning From The Land and the award-winning eco acoustics firm, The Woolly Shepherd. Throughout her life she has also contributed to and worked for causes she feels strongly about, from Friends of the Earth, Médecins sans Frontière and Amnesty International, to the Somerset Wildlife Trust, where she is currently a trustee. Nicky joined Transform Drug Policy Foundation in early 2015, drawn by the commitment, passion and knowledge of those in the organisation and its unique vision. Unlike ending poverty and injustice, ending the war on drugs is completely achievable.
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