Global Drug Policy - Is a War on Drugs What We Need?

By Bruce Knotts

Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference

Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference
In April 2016 there will be a UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on global drug policy; the first such conference in 18 years. This has been promoted by many Latin American countries and other supporting nations that are dissatisfied with the militarized and punitive policies on drugs. Leading the effort is Portugal which has effectively decriminalized drug use, opting for treatment options over criminal justice to deal with issues relating to drugs. Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference (SDPC) plans to hold side-events during this UNGASS and the UU-UNO hopes to be involved as well. The Special Session will take place around the same time as the UU-UNO’s annual Intergenerational Spring Seminar which this year will focus on economic inequality and Black Lives Matter, and we hope to include SDPC leaders at the seminar. In anticipation of the April 2016 UNGASS, I represented the UUA at a meeting of the SDPC at the Open Society offices from October 6-7, 2015 in Washington, D.C. which dealt with state, national, and global drug policies. The last global drug policies were established at the UNGASS conference in 1998, which called for a “drug free world.” However, drugs have always been part of society and always will be. Furthermore, the militarized, criminalized, and punishment-oriented “War on Drugs” hasn’t worked. A majority of participants in this conference were African American religious leaders, while others represented diverse backgrounds and faith traditions. There was much discussion throughout of the kind of god we worship and how that reflects the way we treat each other in our society. The traditional Protestant God is an angry god determined to punish sinners. In the context of drug policy, sin pertains to what individuals put into their own bodies. Many people worship a punishing god and we tell people that if you do drugs or drink to excess they are “going to hell.” Then we create hell on earth in our prisons for drug offenders. Perhaps if we worshiped a compassionate and caring god, as the Universalists teach, then we ourselves will become more compassionate and caring in our treatment of “sinners.” As mentioned above, the “War on Drugs” has failed to decrease the presence of drugs in our society; instead, it has resulted in disproportionate punishment and disenfranchisement. Drug use has been effectively decriminalized in predominantly white neighborhoods, while there is an alarmingly high arrest and conviction rate of people of color. The effect of the “War on Drugs” is in reality a war on people of color with tremendous disruption on the lives, families and communities of color. Within the United States, there has been some sign of progress in the form of the bipartisan effort to pass legislation in the U.S. Senate to shorten criminal sentences for drug possession. This was seen by the participants as a very positive step, yet the concern is still very real that mass incarceration could be replaced by an even more massive system of control. There are people under house arrest and still many millions of felony convictions deprive citizens of voting rights and access to education, health, housing and other benefits. The ultimate goal for addressing problems of drug use and drug policy worldwide needs to be reducing harm to individuals, families and communities. The focus should be placed on treatment, job training, education and an expansion of opportunities. Education is especially key, as multiple studies have demonstrated that the longer children remain in school, the lower the chances are that they will ever go to prison, and those that receive education in prison have a much lower rate of recidivism. This will be an ongoing discussion with many opportunities for activism as we all continue our engagement with the Movement for Black Lives.

About the Author

Bruce Knotts

Bruce Knotts is the Director of the Unitarian Universalist Office at the United Nations. He was born and raised in Southern California. He got his Bachelor’s Degree in History from Pepperdine University and his Master’s Degree in International Education from the Monterey Institute of...


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