War in Reverse: Drugs, Consensus and Killing

Today the fighting is as intense as it has ever been but it is right at this moment that the war on drugs may be coming to an end. What we are seeing now at the UN in Vienna, over half a century since the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was adopted, is the breakdown of the all-important consensus.

In Slaughterhouse Five Kurt Vonnegut imagines war in reverse. Bomber planes flying backwards over burning towns, the fires shrinking, the bombs being pulled into the bellies of the planes...the dismantling of weapons...the healing of wounds.

'The war on drugs' is a pejorative metaphor. But the metaphor is apt and accurate in describing the scale of damage that has been done and the tactics that have been employed, right down to trenches, barbed wire and military operations. And it's a war in reverse. By that I mean the manner in which wars or conflicts tend to begin and come to an end are backwards. What's more, those of us following the debates this week at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna can see its trajectory; and it's ending.

Wars tend to go something like this: two or more states or actors within a state are at loggerheads over an event or issue. They can be political, for example, or cultural, territorial or in pursuit of commodities. No diplomatic, peaceful solution can be found and at some point that inability to find agreement leads to a breakdown in negotiation.

Then the fighting begins, and the fighting continues until one side is gradually weakened and beaten. The parties then come back to the table to agree peace accords (with one side in a significantly disadvantaged position) and from there the damage can start to be repaired.

It's a grossly simplified typology, but we recognise the general pattern. The drug war is the exact opposite.

Back in the early half of the 20th century the international community was seized of the perceived threat presented by certain commodities; a global problem requiring a combined effort to solve. Cultural and political differences were set aside (literally in relation to certain cultural practices) and world leaders spoke with one voice. All were in agreement as to what to do and an international treaty was drafted to anoint that agreement. International bureaucracies were established to oversee the consensus, funded out of the coffers of the parties.

Then the fighting began.

What followed is well documented, and just like all wars it involves death, ill-health, destruction and grotesque expenditure. But the enemy did not go away. More treaties were adopted, ever stronger consensus achieved, and more States pulled into the fold; right up to 1998 when the international community gathered at a Special Session of the UN General Assembly and reaffirmed its commitment to rid the world of the threat, and to do so in a decade.

Today the fighting is as intense as it has ever been but it is right at this moment that the war on drugs may be coming to an end. What we are seeing now at the UN in Vienna, over half a century since the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was adopted, is the breakdown of the all-important consensus. More and more governments are stepping out of line. More and more are realising they can no longer abide by the international treaties they once thought were a good idea.

Of course, the war on drugs was never a war between states but a war between governments and people; more accurately, certain groups of people; people who were never at the negotiating table. That, too, is changing. As national or sub-national governments and their citizens come to their own agreements via democratic processes (as they did in Washington and Colorado on cannabis reform), the international consensus further erodes.

In the run-up to this week's high level meeting at the UN in Vienna - the epicentre of global drug control - a 'joint ministerial statement' was negotiated. It was intended to be a new consensus document on progress and achievements in drug control and a recognition of remaining challenges.

What actually happened was that intractable disagreements over fundamental issues such as HIV prevention, civil society participation, and human rights resulted in a document (produced at lord knows what cost) that is so divorced from reality as to be an embarrassment to any ministers that endorse it (UK drugs and HIV organsiations called on the UK to reject it).

More importantly, it is so obviously meaningless that it is plain for all to see that agreement could not be reached even in areas where previously consensus was strong.

Even as many Member States from Ecuador to the Czech Republic used their speeches this week to express a clear desire for a new approach to drug control, others such as Russia remain steadfast in their commitment to a 'drug free world' and reject proven harm reduction interventions.

For some, including Iran, Vietnam and China aging the drug war includes any and all means, including killing. What is legal now in Uruguay and parts of the US - cannabis production and sales - can still get you sentenced to death in Malaysia, Singapore and elsewhere, or beheaded in Saudi Arabia. Between these polar opposites there can be no consensus and everybody knows it. Calls for an end to the death penalty for drugs have permeated this week's high level meeting.

These are not just national differences. They go to the core of the system. Disagreement on the death penalty for drugs, for example, almost derailed seven months of negotiations. Some governments, (such as Switzerland, UK, Sweden and Mexico) simply could not agree to help others with their drug enforcement efforts unless those governments would agree to stop killing those they convict.

This cut to the heart of the principle of 'shared responsibility'; a principle the international drug control system holds dear; a principle it requires to function. It is the manifestation of that long-standing consensus.

The death penalty shows that States are now taking sides in the war on drugs; those that respect basic human rights and those that do not. And they cannot work together anymore.

It is perhaps fitting for a war in reverse that the act of killing may play a strong role in the breakdown of negotiations which will in turn precipitate the end of the conflict.


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