The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) was engulfed in controversy on Monday after it attempted to distance itself from an official document advocating decriminalization of narcotics that was written by its own staff.
The text, authored by Dr. Monica Beg, head of UNODC's HIV/AIDS office at its headquarters in Vienna, was expected to be unveiled on Sunday, coinciding with the convening of the 24th International Harm Reduction Conference in Kuala Lumpur, which she is attending.
The paper was never released, however. (It is viewable below.) On Monday, Virgin CEO and drug policy reform advocate Richard Branson leaked the text on his personal blog while applauding it as "a refreshing shift that could go a long way to finally end the needless criminalization of millions of drug users around the world."
In a message that seemed calculated to force the UNODC's hand, Branson — who served in 2011 on the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which declared the global war on drugs a failure — expressed excitement that the organization "has now unequivocally stated that criminalisation is harmful, unnecessary and disproportionate, echoing concerns about the immense human and economic costs of current drug policies voiced earlier by UNAIDS, the World Health Organisation, UNDP, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Women, Kofi Annan and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon."
But he noted that "at least one government" was pressuring UNODC to walk back the policy briefing.
"Let us hope the UNODC, a global organisation that is part of the UN and supposed to do what is right for the people of the world, does not do a remarkable volte-face at the last possible moment and bow to pressure by not going ahead with this important move," he wrote.
VICE News asked Branson's press team if he had received assurances that the text was approved at the highest levels of UNODC, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
The UNODC paper states that existing forms of interdiction have led to severe health consequences, discrimination, compulsory detention, and incarceration across the world.
"The threat of arrest and criminal sanctions have been widely shown to obstruct access to lifesaving health services like sterile needles and syringes, opioid substation therapy, naloxone for overdose, fueling HIV and hepatitis C epidemics among people who use drugs, and contributing to preventable deaths from those blood borne viruses and drug overdose," the policy brief says.
The document cites the last of the three UN treaties that govern global narcotics law — the 1988 Convention against the Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances — as allowing states discretion to determine penalties for use and consumption.
"Worldwide, millions of people are imprisoned for minor, non-violent drug-related offenses, in spite of the international drug control conventions' provisions permitting to apply alternatives to conviction in cases of 'minor nature,' " it says.
'We were expecting this historic announcement where the UNODC finally recognizes the failures of criminalization internationally.'
The adjustment of drug policy described in the document is not controversial. Studies have shown that decriminalization can be an effective means of harm reduction, and countries that have implemented it as policy — such as Portugal — have actually experienced a decrease in narcotics use. Several UN agencies, including the WHO, UNAIDS, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, have all endorsed decriminalization in the context of harm reduction measures and the furthering of human rights.
"Decriminalising drug use and possession for personal consumption is consistent with international drug control conventions and may be required to meet obligations under international human rights law," says the UNODC text.
In a statement issued Monday, UNODC spokesperson David Dadge claimed that the document was "intended for dissemination and discussion" at the conference in Kuala Lumpur. The policy brief "is neither a formal document from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and cannot be read as a statement of UNODC policy," he said. "It remains under review and UNODC regrets that, on this occasion, there has been an unfortunate misunderstanding about the nature and intent of this briefing paper."
VICE News reached drug policy advocates in Kuala Lumpur, who said they were caught off guard when UNODC failed to release the text on Sunday after it was first circulated last Friday.
"We were expecting this historic announcement where the UNODC finally recognizes the failures of criminalization internationally," said one policy expert attending the conference in Malaysia. "We all knew it was coming."
"Now UNODC are claiming that it was to be disseminated at the conference for discussion," added the expert, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity due to their relationship with the UN. "We are all laughing at that, saying, 'Let's have a plenary session on this document that we all agree with.' "
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said it was hard to believe that the text, written on official UNODC letterhead and with no markings indicating it was a draft, was merely meant for private dissemination.
"If you look at that document, you know it reflects internal deliberations at the UN," he said.
Several sources close to UNODC told VICE News that suspicion had fallen on the US, which they believed had pressured UNODC to awkwardly walk back the document. VICE News could not confirm those accounts, but the US would be one of only a handful of countries — including Russia and possibly China — that hold such weight in the international drug policy arena. The head of UNODC, Yuri Fedotov, is Russian, and formerly served as the Kremlin's ambassador to the United Kingdom.
UNODC, for its part, is one of the most opaque and closed agencies at the UN. Critics say that its dual mandate — to handle drug use and fight international crime — led it for decades to conflate the two. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, as well as reform advocates, have pushed for UNODC to cede some drug policy control to agencies such as the World Health Organization.
"We think what happened is that a member state got wind of this and put pressure on UNODC to withdraw or delay it, so they are trying to cover their tracks a bit," said Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst at the nonprofit Transform Drug Policy Foundation. "But the problem that UNODC are going to have is if they are going to challenge any of the points made in the brief, they won't be able to deny or refute them because all the analysis is very carefully constructed legally and is stuff that other UN agencies have already said."
"The fact is," he added, "it's out there now."
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford