Censorship and Exclusion on Day One of UN Special Session on Drugs

UNITED NATIONS, April 19, 2106 -- Photo taken on April 19, 2016 shows delegates observe a minute of silence during the openin
UNITED NATIONS, April 19, 2106 -- Photo taken on April 19, 2016 shows delegates observe a minute of silence during the opening ceremony of UN General Assembly high-level special session on the world drug problem to discuss how to fight against illicit drug use at the UN headquarters in New York. (Xinhua/Li Muzi via Getty Images)

The atmosphere at the United Nations General Assembly's Special Session on Drugs is dense with hypocrisy. I didn't fly all the way from California to New York to participate in one of the most significant conversations on drug policy in world history so that youth -- the very demographic the UN General Assembly President said we should be listening to -- could be locked out of discussions about youth. I didn't fly all the way here so the UN could censor the opinions of drug reformists, politicians, and experts before they even got in the door.

I've been writing about the toll that the War on Drugs has taken on young people and families for a long time. So, instead of paying lip service on Twitter, like UN General Assembly President H.E. Mogens Lykketoft, I'm going to let a young person speak.

"We were redirected to three different buildings just trying to get our passes. Once we received our passes, we weren't allowed to the balcony we were supposed to be viewing the General Assembly from because they said it was closed. From there, we left to attend a side event on the importance of including youth voices in drug policy dialogue, where we were once again denied access... After speaking with numerous confused security personnel, filling out security forms, getting our official passes printed, and returning to the side session in hopes of making it into a question period, we were ultimately denied. I was infuriated. It's so hypocritical to deny youth access to a discussion about youth voice in drug policy and have adults and government officials speak on our behalf. It felt like a huge scam and a Kafka-esque, bureaucratic fever dream; I couldn't believe it was happening. We've been preparing for so long and honestly believed we'd have a chance to speak for ourselves for once." - Heather D'Alessio, Ottawa, ON - CanadianStudents for Sensible Drug Policy

Modern abolitionists sought a glimmer of hope in this convening of world leaders. It's the first UN Special Session on Drugs since 1998. Last time, they agreed the ultimate goal was to eradicate drug use worldwide. After clearly failing, what we're left with is an increasingly tragic overdose crisis, to which my own brother fell victim; ever-encroaching cartel violence at our southern border; and a historically high mistrust between communities and police.

We couldn't have anticipated the blatant censorship and bureaucratic exclusion that confronted us at New York's UN headquarters. My organization, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, signed onto an open letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, along with over 1,000 other global leaders, public health experts, law enforcement officials, and human rights advocates including presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders; entrepreneur-philanthropists Warren Buffet and Richard Branson; former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and countless other dignitaries. Peaceful protestors handed thousands of printed copies of the letter to people entering the UN headquarters yesterday only for UN security to confiscate the letter from anyone entering the building.

In discussions yesterday, I heard from many countries disappointed in the effects of repressive drug policies and the exclusion of harm reduction. Given that, and the sheer volume of support for this letter, censorship of ideas and programs backed by research and documented success came as a huge shock to us.

Their censorship of free speech failed as drug prohibition has failed.

The UN must recognize that they can no longer censor or block the work of civil society organizations that are demanding accountability for the failure of the UN drug conventions. Today, the UN engaged in tactics that aren't even consistent with their own supposed philosophy on free speech. Article 19 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Their censorship of ideas that contradict the drug conventions could signal fear of the inevitable paradigm shift in the way we deal with drugs.

I don't know if the censorship and exclusion were intentional or a serious case of miscommunication, but its effect was that already marginalized voices were once again silenced. Excluding youth from a session about listening to youth voices is more than absurd; it's offensive. The UN owes us all, especially the youth representatives who worked so hard to be here, an explanation.