20 Oct 2015

UN attempt to decriminalise drugs foiled

8:19 am on 20 October 2015

An attempt by UN officials to get countries to decriminalise the possession and use of all drugs has been foiled.

Medical Marijuana growing in LA

Photo: AFP

A paper from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has been withdrawn after pressure from at least one country.

The document, which was leaked, recommends that UN members consider "decriminalising drug and possession for personal consumption".

It argued "arrest and incarceration are disproportionate measures".

The document was drawn up by Dr Monica Beg, chief of the HIV/AIDs section of the UNODC in Vienna. It was prepared for an international harm reduction conference currently being held in Kuala Lumpur.

The UNODC oversees international drugs conventions and offers guidance on compliance.

Sources within the UNODC said the document was never sanctioned by the organisation as policy. One senior figure within the agency described Dr Beg as "a middle-ranking official" who was offering a professional viewpoint.

The document, on headed agency notepaper, claims it "clarifies the position of UNODC to inform country responses to promote a health and human-rights approach to drug policy".

"Treating drug use for non-medical purposes and possession for personal consumption as criminal offences has contributed to public health problems and induced negative consequences for safety, security, and human rights," the document states.

Drug possession is a criminal offence in many member states, including New Zealand.

The UNODC has been under pressure for some time to make a clear statement with regard to decriminalisation of drug possession and use. Other UN agencies including the World Health Organisation and UNAIDS have been explicit in their opposition to drug users facing criminal sanctions on health and human rights grounds.

Campaigners have long believed that the UNODC is key to changing government drug policies ahead of a meeting on 'The World Drug problem' at the UN General Assembly next April.

In addition to calling on member states to consider decriminalising personal possession and use, the UNODC paper also suggests low-level dealing should not be criminal offence.

"Small drug related offenses, such as drug dealing to maintain personal drug use or to survive in a very marginalized environment, could be interpreted as drug related offenses of a 'minor nature', as mentioned in the international drug control conventions," the report says. "These cases should receive rehabilitation opportunities, social support and care, and not punishment."

The future of the document is unclear. Sources within the UNODC suggest that there would need to be wide consultation and agreement before the paper's recommendations became formal policy.