PM's position on 'drug war' balanced and realistic

2:13 pm on 25 September 2018

By Russell Brown*

Opinion - The prime minister's rejection of US President Donald Trump's call for a renewed war on drugs is correct and consistent with the previous government's position on human rights and drug control.

Two moments stood out in Mr Trump's brief, laboured statement on drug policy at the United Nations overnight.

No caption

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says New Zealand won't be signing up to a US call for global action on the war on drugs. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

The first was trivial but telling: Mr Trump congratulated Colombian President Iván Duque on his recent "very, very impressive" election victory and declared that the US looked forward to "partnering with his new administration to eradicate cocoa production in his country".

Cocoa, of course, is what chocolate is made from. The plant that cocaine is made from is coca. It's a fairly common error for American politicians: as a US-based drug policy analyst observed to me today, the annual Congressional debates on aid to Colombia must terrify the chocolate industry.

The other moment came at the end of the statement, when Mr Trump undertook to work with the countries represented in the room "to deliver a drug-free future for all of our children".

That concluding phrase had a resonance for any long-term observer of UN drug policy - because it's something the UN itself promised to do, exactly 20 years ago.

The official slogan of UNGASS (United Nations General Assembly Special Session) 1998, the UN General Assembly's second grand meeting on drug policy, was "A drug-free world - we can do it!"

Pino Arlacchi, the then executive director of the UN Drug Control Programme, even put a deadline on it, writing a special article for the UN Chronicle under the headline 'Towards a Drug-Free World by 2008 - We Can Do It'.

We did not do it. Not by 2008 and not by 2018.

The actions the UN resolved to pursue 20 years ago probably made things worse.

A programme of forced eradication of coca plantations in Colombia - via a militarised campaign of spraying herbicide - drove farmers to switch to smaller, shade-grown varieties of coca plant, which were both harder to detect from the air and considerably more productive.

Mr Duque's vow this month to "intervene from the air, at sea and on land" had a familiar ring to it.

The UN did succeed after 1998 in making another popular drug, MDMA, or Ecstasy, harder to manufacture by clamping down on a key precursor.

But that, too, had unintended consequences. In 2008, the year when the global MDMA supply was strangled, a new generation of synthetic psychoactive substances burst onto the scene, filling a demand that had not gone away.

Many of these were more dangerous than MDMA and all of them were less well understood. By the time underground chemists in Europe worked out other ways of making MDMA itself, Pandora's Box was well and truly open.

The synthetic drug wave got special mention in the Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem that was the pretext for Mr Trump's UN statement.

US President Donald Trump attends a meeting on the global drug problem at the United Nations (UN) with UN Ambassador Nikki Haley.

US President Donald Trump attends a meeting on the global drug problem at the United Nations (UN) with UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. Photo: AFP / Getty Images

The one signed up to by more than 120 countries - but not New Zealand.

Are we doing the right thing here? Essentially, yes. The text of the Call to Action is not, in itself, particularly odious as much as it is meaningless and redundant.

It is something of a reduction of the UNGASS 2016 outcome document and even directly lifts some of its phrasing. All of the supply-reduction stuff in the Call to Action was in the UNGASS document to which we signed up.

What's stripped out is the endorsement of human rights as a baseline, the acknowledgment of the gendered nature of harm from both the illicit drug industry and drug control policies and the pledge to "ensure that national drug policies, as part of a comprehensive, integrated and balanced approach, fully respect all human rights and fundamental freedoms and protect the health, safety and well-being of individuals, families, vulnerable members of society, communities and society as a whole".

That language was fought for ahead of UNGASS 2016. It was the result of compelling work by UN agencies - most notably the United Nations Development Programme under Helen Clark - that canvassed the harm being done to the most vulnerable people.

To sign up to Mr Trump's bowdlerised version - whose text was non-negotiable - would be to erase the difficult and often painful process that got the international community to a slightly better place only two years ago.

I was at the UN for UNGASS 2016. I witnessed Russian delegates repeatedly disrupt and derail sessions on policy reform, and heard Indonesia's delegates rally for the death penalty.

I got caught up as a journalist in what seemed like a deliberate attempt to frustrate NGO access. It's no coincidence that that countries that looked to undermine the meeting were those who were now said to be keenest on the Trump stunt: Russia, Saudi Arabia and China among them. They see an opportunity to strip back the recent consensus without the bother of process.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres greets Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the United Nations in New York 23 Sept 2018.

Photo: AFP

I also heard very good, well-received speeches by two New Zealanders, former minister Peter Dunne and New Zealand Drug Foundation chairman Tuari Potiki (the latter, I confess, brought me to tears).

We were not on the side of Russia and Saudi Arabia, we continued to hold harm minimisation as a key principle of drug policy, as we have for two decades, and our minister called for "boldness" in reform.

I was not very surprised to see Mr Dunne yesterday describe the statement by National Party leader Simon Bridges, slating the prime minister for failing to sign up to the Trump document as "frankly ignorant and appalling".

Neither the reformers or the hardliners got what they wanted two years at the UN - and, indeed, the consensus at that meeting may have contained the seeds of its own demise.

Canada, which announced in the week of UNGASS that it planned to legalise and regulate cannabis, is now doing so in contravention of the UN Single Convention.

Pending the result of a referendum, New Zealand may soon do the same. We may be looking at a world that goes two different ways on drug control - a world where willingness for drug policy reform maps closely to regard for human rights.

But in declining to join Mr Trump's call, Ms Ardern and her government have remained consistent with the positions of the previous government and those before. We have done the right thing.

*Russell Brown is an Auckland-based journalist for Public Address and drug law reform advocate.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs