Twenty-seventeen is poised to be a challenging year for drug policy reform. Extrajudicial killings have surpassed 7,000 in the Philippines, 140 lives have been claimed in Brazil's prison riots, and the U.S. president is gearing up to pursue the war on drugs with renewed vigor.
Evidence of the drug war's failure has yet to convince the world's most stalwart ideologues. Since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's inauguration last June, an average of more than 30 people have been killed each day in a bloody drug war fueled by extrajudicial killings. More than 1,175,000 have been pressured to turn themselves in to authorities. Duterte likens himself to Hitler, saying he'd be happy to slaughter millions of drug addicts.
The recent violence in Brazil's penitentiary system, and visited upon the country's poorest in their home communities, can be traced directly to punitive drug policies. "The current policy of criminalising drug use, production, and distribution has fueled the growth of criminal organizations," Human Rights Watch reports. "It has also filled prisons with people detained for possession of small quantities of drugs, who become vulnerable, while incarcerated, to recruitment by gangs."
Worryingly, U.S. President Donald Trump reportedly praised Duterte for going about his fight against drugs "the right way." His nominee for U.S. Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, when serving as Alabama's attorney general, promoted a state bill to establish mandatory death sentences for a second drug trafficking conviction, including for dealing marijuana. This, despite the fact that the Supreme Court banned mandatory death sentences. Though Sessions now says he does not support mandatory executions for drug trafficking, the fact that he once put great political weight behind it is telling. Moreover, Gen. John Kelly, the new Secretary of Homeland Security, served as head of U.S. Southern Command, overseeing drug war efforts in Latin America under the Obama Administration.
The question is whether we are going to move forward, stall, or be forced to take a defensive stance in order to protect the hard-won gains of 2016.
In November, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, comprised of several former presidents and world leaders, released their yearly report advocating for the elimination of all penalties, of any kind, for persons who use drugs, and presenting decriminalization models that have worked.
Soon after, while accepting his Nobel Peace Prize, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia used the platform to call for a rethink of the war on drugs, noting that it "is equally or perhaps even more harmful than all the wars the world is fighting today, combined."
In his last day in office, President Obama commuted the sentences of 330 federal inmates convicted of non-violent drug crimes, bringing to 1,715 the total number of commutations granted. "He saw the injustice of the sentences that were imposed in many situations, and he has a strong view that people deserve a second chance," explained is White House counsel.
Meanwhile, other countries are moving forward with progressive reforms that have proven far more effective than punitive models at solving drug-related problems.
In December, Ghana introduced the Narcotics Control Commission Bill, which reduces penalties for possession, funds harm reduction services, and redirects some drug users away from incarceration and to compulsory treatment.
Uruguay continues to move cautiously ahead with cannabis reform efforts; full implementation of commercial sales will occur in early 2017. Other countries in Latin America including Chile, Colombia, and Mexico continue to push forward on medical cannabis legislative initiatives.
In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration has permitted a phase 3 trial for MDMA, also known as ecstasy, to treat PTSD, marking the first step towards possible approval in the coming years. California, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Maine voted for full regulation of marijuana for recreational use, and Florida, North Dakota, and Arkansas passed medical marijuana initiatives, marking a significant milestone for drug policy reformists that will hopefully influence national and international opinions and standards.
Italy's Inter-gruppo Parlamentare Cannabis Legale fought hard to bring the cannabis reform conversation to Parliament in 2016 and generated widespread support across party lines as well as with unlikely partners, including anti-mafia and anti-terrorism prosecutors, in favor of reform. The Chamber of Deputies in Rome will continue its discussion of a draft bill to promote legal regulation of production and commerce of cannabis for all purposes.
Ireland is currently reviewing The Misuse of Drugs (Supervised Injecting Facilities) Bill, which would allow centers to be introduced in Ireland if it is passed. The bill,strongly supported by former Drugs Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, proposed opening a pilot center in Dublin City Center.
Thailand has introduced the idea of decriminalizing methamphetamine, a popular drug used by both the rich and the poor. The country still upholds rigid drug laws, but the recent surprising statement by the country's Justice Minister, Paiboon Koomchaya, suggesting that the drug should be taken off the dangerous drugs list, could dramatically shift opinions and policies that would help many throughout the country.
The UN's incoming Secretary General, António Guterres, was the prime minister of Portugal when the country decriminalized all drugs. His previous positions and policies will likely inform his decision making as the Secretary General.
As I look for signs of hope, what inspires me most is the dedication, passion, and energy of civil society. At the Museum of Drug Policy during UNGASS 2016 I was moved by the many mothers, faith leaders, artists, and musicians who were undeterred by the UN's inability to change outdated rules. This is where the action is. These are the forces that pressure their leaders and that ultimately lead to progressive change. Last year's convening of UNGASS mobilized and elevated civil society voices to unprecedented levels. My hope is that the closing of spaces for civil society around the world will not undermine the progress made in drug policy reform over the last decade.