Hand holding joint

“We're setting sail to the place on the map from which no one has ever returned. Drawn by the promise of the joker and the fool by the light of the crosses that burned. Drawn by the promise of the women and the lace and the gold and the cotton and pearls. …  You will pay tomorrow. You’re gonna pay tomorrow … Save me. Save me from tomorrow. I don't want to sail with this ship of fools.” – World Party, 1985

While you were transfixed by the drip drip drip of the sinking ship – the firing of the FBI director, the now-numerous meetings with Russians, the litany of lies – a major development in international drug policy occurred, largely uncovered by the media and buried deeply in the “Joint United Nations statement on ending discrimination in health care settings” issued by the United Nations (UN) and World Health Organization (WHO) on June 27, 2017. Within the thirteenth paragraph on the seemingly unrelated topic of health care discrimination in a sentence that mostly concerned sex were these few words, “drug use or possession of drugs for personal use.” They are profound: both organizations support “reviewing and repealing punitive laws” that criminalize drugs, all drugs.

Granted, the WHO published a similar groundbreaking report in 2014 that called for broad reforms, including the decriminalization of drug use and such harm reduction strategies as syringe exchange, opioid substitution therapy and access to naloxone. The report went even further to advance the idea of ending discrimination against drug users, upholding human rights standards, banning compulsory treatment and eliminating the stigma that taints this marginalized populace. Under the umbrella of stopping health care discrimination, the UN joined the call.

This under-reported and under-appreciated major development was sweet music to those who, for more than a century, have been plowing social justice through the turbulent waters of drug prohibition.

It was as if enlightenment struck during the early part of this decade. The same year that WHO issued its report, Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C. joined Colorado and Washington to legalize recreational cannabis. Minnesota, New York and Guam passed medical marijuana laws, Maryland decriminalized the plant and even uber conservative Utah and Oklahoma tested the waters with Cannabidiol (CBD) oil legislation.

Enlightenment enabled the public to see the possibilities that repeal, decriminalization and legalization could portend: Reductions in opioid overdoses and hospitalizations. Lower crime stats with fewer arrests; cuts in incarceration rates for non-violent drug offenses, thousands of jobs in a new industry, newfound tax dollars funding schools and repairing roads.

For a country spending an annual $100 billion on drug control, imprisoning more than 2.2 million of its citizens and branding a third of its adult population with a criminal record, all while 50,000 die each year from overdose, the UN and WHO joint statement should be welcome news.

Well, no. Not to the Trump administration that appointed a veritable drug policy “ship of fools” to powerful cabinet, department and commission positions, all intent on scrapping enlightenment. Shipmates include:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who issued a memorandum in May calling on U.S. Attorneys to push for the most punitive punishments possible when prosecuting drug crimes, directly in contravention to the UN and WHO. 

Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price – a medical doctor, former Congressman and ardent marijuana opponent – touted faith based treatment over the proven harm reduction strategies advocated by the UN and WHO. 

Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) John Kelly first soft-pedaled the DHS position on marijuana, then two days later issued the dire warnings that TSA will screen for it, Customs and Border Protection search for it, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement will deport for it.

Scandal prone New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, now serving as chair of the White House “Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis,” called marijuana legalization “beyond stupidity,” coloring advocates as willing to “poison our kids” for “blood money” from sales taxes. The joint UN and WHO report couldn’t be more timely.

It seems that the Trump team is intent on bending the arc of justice back decades to when the laws and policies that created the opiate crisis, expanded arrests, swelled prisons and ballooned budgets were first enacted. So while the UN and WHO joint statement showed the world a path to the future, the US was sailing off in different and darker direction.

We’re at a crossroads. The new war-on-drugs pushed by the new administration may sound tough today, but as a century of prohibition has taught us, we will pay tomorrow. And pay and pay. Perhaps this is why Trump and company suffer the lowest approval rating ever and why we are transfixed by the drip drip drip. Sorry, we don’t want to sail with this ship of fools.


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