Forty years ago, the United Nations (UN) voted to express "its determination to strengthen action and cooperation" to rid the world of drug abuse. The UN marked this expression with the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking—or World Drug Day, for short—which takes place each year on June 26. Now here's another expression: World Drug Day should go fuck itself.
A fundamental problem with World Drug Day is that the UN views all recreational cannabis use and commerce as "drug abuse and illicit trafficking." California, Colorado, Canada, Uruguay… that means you, too.
Three UN treaties from 1961, '71 and '88 (you know, from before most of you were born) set the terms for international drug control, and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) monitors the member nations for compliance. Last March, the INCB released its 2017 report and took several countries to task for moving forward with decriminalization and legalization. In joining Russia by calling out the U.S. and Canada, the report said, "North America [has] continued to pursue policies with respect to the legalization of the use of cannabis for non-medical purposes, in violation of the 1961 Convention."
One might argue it's the job of the INCB to call out non-compliant countries—which it did several times—yet one criticism is ridiculous even by dishonest DEA standards. "The decriminalization of cannabis has apparently led organized criminal groups to focus on manufacturing and trafficking other illegal drugs, such as heroin," the report argued. "This could explain why, for example, Canada saw a 32 percent increase from 2015 to 2016 in criminal incidents involving heroin possession."
How's that for a new spin on the benefits of prohibition: By keeping gang profits high with black-market weed, we limit its involvement in the heroin game. Simply brilliant.
If the report calls out Canada and the U.S. for violating the 1961 treaty, one assumes the UN did lots of research on cannabis in the 57 years since it rolled out its first prohibitions. It's not like the UN just released its first-ever cannabis review earlier this month, right?
So, earlier this month, the UN's World Health Organization previewed the findings of its first-ever cannabis review. The documents (check them out here) claim both cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) have wide-ranging therapeutic benefits and that "cannabis is a relatively safe drug… not associated with acute fatal overdoses." The report did note potential risks, including the debunked IQ-decline claim that the original researcher personally refuted in 2017, and it made a chicken-hearted call for more research, but not change, or even a freeze on low-level arrests as more research takes place.
The UN cannabis review deserves a pat on the back for catching up to the 21st century—maybe not to 2018 but it's arguably in the early 2000s now—and major kudos to the dissident staffer who posted a propaganda-busting link on the official World Drug Day Facebook page (yes, that's our LIKE). Still, real change comes slowly to an organization that, until last week, classified "transsexualism" as a mental illness.
Now consider the World Drug Day site: The online "resources" continue to perpetuate tired lies about "bongo," which is apparently a popular slang term for cannabis, and claim the effects of heavy cannabis use are "similar to those of hallucinogens and may cause anxiety, panic and even psychotic episodes." There's even the story of a young cannabis addict who turned into a zombified junkie, prompting the warning, "If you think this is one of the lighter drugs you are truly deluded."
It appears World Drug Day didn't get the UN’s “relatively safe” memo.
In 2016, The Lancet and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health published a major report that called on the UN to change its approach to international drug laws. Among the many hard-hitting arguments, the report said modern drug policy "does not distinguish between drug use and drug misuse… [and] the idea that all drug use is dangerous and evil has led to enforcement-heavy policies." The report also claimed prohibition "contributed directly and indirectly to lethal violence, communicable-disease transmission, discrimination, forced displacement, unnecessary physical pain and the undermining of people’s right to health."
This all led to one of the report's most important takeaways: "Standard public health and scientiﬁc approaches that should be part of policy making on drugs have been rejected in the pursuit of prohibition."
As The Lancet report argued, it's drug misuse that's the problem. The majority of cannabis users consume it responsibly, and public health campaigns should focus on making sure everyone who chooses to consume does so in responsible ways with a minimal amount of risk. Instead, the UN pushes drug policies that criminalize all recreational use, and World Drug Day promotes negative stigma and falsehoods that discourage the public from asking questions about safe consumption or seeking help when problematic use occurs.
World Drug Day once pushed the grammatically challenged theme "Drugs is not child's play," but locking up adults for responsible use—primarily minorities, of course—isn't child's play either. To affect positive change, the day should promote comprehensive cannabis education, reductions in stigma and free screenings for mental health disorders, which is the leading risk factor for drug misuse. If it's only going to promote damaging drug war policies, the UN should change the name to World Lock Up Minorities Day or World Protect Big Pharma Day or World Drug War Lies Day.
In the end, the truest aspect of World Drug Day is the date the UN chose to commemorate it. June 26 is meant to honor Lin Zexu, the 19th-century Chinese politician who destroyed millions of pounds of opium in June 1839 and sparked a three-year conflict known as the First Opium War. So, how did that drug war turn out? China experienced a massive defeat that led to Zexu's exile and what Chinese nationalists called the Century of Humiliation. Can't make that shit up.
If the UN really wanted a holiday to promote failed drug war policies, it certainly picked the right person to symbolize it.