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State Department: Obama Could Call for Global Drug Decriminalization

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Just weeks ahead of the first high-level United Nations review of global drug policies in nearly two decades, a top U.S. State Department official said that other countries have the right to set their own approaches, including decriminalization. He also suggested that the Obama administration may go beyond merely tolerating other nations’ removal of criminal penalties for drugs and could specifically press for them to do so.

“One size does not fit all. Every country is not exactly the same,” William Brownfield, assistant secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, said in a press briefing on Tuesday. “And we must be tolerant of the sovereign authority of a government to develop and apply the drug strategy that is most effective for their condition and their reality.”

Heads of state and other leaders will gather next month in New York for a United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs. There, countries will seek to plot revised approaches to global substance abuse and trafficking issues, and will have the opportunity to revise three international drug control treaties that have historically threatened to stand in the way of reforms such as marijuana legalization.

But instead of merely condoning international moves away from prohibition, Brownfield indicated that the Obama administration could use the gathering to proactively encourage other countries to decriminalize drugs.

“We will call for pragmatic and concrete criminal justice reform, areas such as alternatives to incarceration or drug courts, or sentencing reform,” he said. “In other words, as President Obama has said many times publicly, to decriminalize much of the basic behavior in drug consumption in order to focus scarce law enforcement resources on the greater challenge of the large transnational criminal organizations.”

While it is unknown which exact positions the U.S. and other countries will take at UNGASS, Brownfield seems to feel that explicit reform of the treaties is not needed in order to accommodate new approaches.

“The conventions, as I mentioned, do have a substantial amount of discretionary authority built in them,” he said. “They do not require, in the text of the convention, the criminalization of the consumption of a product. A nation can reach its own determination there, so long as it does it in a way that is consistent with the objective of reducing the harm caused to societies, communities, and individuals of the product.”

At the last UNGASS, in 1998, countries came together under the slogan, “A Drug Free World. We Can Do It!”

Since that time, four U.S. states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis, as has the nation of Uruguay. Canada’s prime minister has pledged to do so, and Mexico is making major marijuana law reform moves, and so are other countries.

But while calling the U.S. a “microcosm of the world” and pointing to the Obama administration’s tolerance of state-level reforms, Brownfield said that “our objective remains that of limiting and eventually eliminating the use of marijuana in the United States of America because of its harm and its dangers.”

The comments on respecting other countries’ differing approaches to drug policy echo similar remarks Brownfield made in October 2014, but have greater significance coming just weeks ahead of the UNGASS. Along the same lines, another State Department official was asked last November about moves to legalize marijuana in Canada and Mexico and said, “It’s up to the people of each nation to decide policies.”

Brownfield also weighed in last year on Jamaica’s recent decriminalization of marijuana, saying, “we must have tolerance and accept that different countries will address their drug issues in different ways so long as they are committed to the fundamental purposes of [international drug control treaties] and that is to reduce the damage, to reduce the harm and eventually to reduce the abuse of these products.”

In the new comments, which were first reported by Samuel Oakford of VICE, Brownfield called the global debate about drug policy reform “as strong and intense on this issue as I have ever seen it in my more than 60 years of life on this planet and my more than 37 years as a diplomat in the service of the United States of America.”

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