U.S. Should Lead on Drug Policy at the United Nations

The United Nations General Assembly is about to gather in New York for a special session to tackle the "world drug problem." This should be the event where President Obama declares an end to the "War on Drugs" and officially pivots United States drug policy toward public health, harm reduction, and civil and human rights.

The last time this occurred was in 1998, when then-President Bill Clinton exhorted the same punitive and racially discriminatory "tough on crime" rhetoric that's driven our drug policy since the Nixon administration. Recent news stories revealed that President Nixon's chief domestic advisor, John D. Ehrlichman, admitted that the drug war was meant to target the antiwar left and black communities.

"We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news," said Ehrlichman. "Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."

When judged by that troubling benchmark, Nixon and his presidential successors were outrageously successful. These cynical policies have destroyed generations of Black families and communities across the country and have led to an explosion in the prison population, with people of color making up two-thirds of all individuals in prison for drug offenses.

But President Obama has started to shift toward a more humane, public health approach to drug policy and our justice system.

During this year's State of the Union address, the first issues he addressed were criminal justice reform and battling prescription drug abuse. In October of last year, the President told a crowd at a West Virginia community resource center that "when it comes to substance abuse, treatment and recovery, those things are possible if we work together and if we care about each other." The White House has hosted a summit on successful pre-booking diversion programs, hearing about local efforts to tackle mass incarceration. And just last month, the President attended the National Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit to announce additional access to treatment, sterile syringes, and other public health approaches and responses; and granted commutations to 61 people sentenced to extremely long sentences for drug crimes.

All of these are strong statements about our changed approach. But there is perhaps no bigger stage than the United Nations to articulate a new vision for how we will address the "world drug problem" as a country.

While we cannot undo the damage that has been caused by the War on Drugs, or the discriminatory policies sparked by the Nixon administration and carried out and exacerbated by subsequent administrations, we can ensure that the same mistakes don't continue to be repeated at home or replicated abroad.

The United States delegation should mark this sea-change by emphasizing public health and civil and human rights. And President Obama can deliver a decidedly different address than the one President Clinton made at the height of the War on Drugs and send a powerful message to the world that we have an international public health problem, not a criminal one.