UN drug agency urged to publish leaked paper backing legalisation of drugs for personal use

Customers purchasing legal recreational marijuana in Portland, Oregon, on Oct 1, 2015.
Customers purchasing legal recreational marijuana in Portland, Oregon, on Oct 1, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Delegates at an international drug-policy conference in Malaysia on Wednesday (Oct 21) called on the United Nations drugs agency to officially release a leaked paper detailing an apparent landmark UN recommendation in favour of decriminalisation.

British tycoon Richard Branson, a legalisation advocate and member of a global drugs commission, caused a stir earlier this week when he leaked the document, which proposes decriminalising drug use and possession "for personal consumption".

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) had originally intended for its paper to be presented this week in Kuala Lumpur, but scrapped those plans and has since claimed it was "not a final document".

But more than 500 conference delegates from around the world, including leading medical professionals, researchers, and activists, on Wednesday held up copies of the two-page document, calling for its recommendations to be adopted.

"The overwhelming support from our delegates today for the UNODC's drug decriminalisation recommendations should embolden them to show brave leadership on this issue, and publish the document in its current form," said Mr Rick Lines, head of Harm Reduction International, a global non-governmental agency advocating drug-policy reform, which organised the conference.

The UNODC paper said legalising personal use of now-illicit drugs could reduce the incarceration of millions of people worldwide, who often suffer subsequent judicial and rights abuses in many countries.

It also said bringing illegal drug use out of the shadows could help curb the spread of HIV and other health threats, and reduce strain on prisons.

In leaking the report on his blog Monday, Mr Branson called it "a refreshing shift that could go a long way to finally end the needless criminalisation of millions of drug users around the world".

Mr Branson is a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy which backs decriminalisation, saying the drug wars have failed and the root causes of drug abuse remain unaddressed.

But the UNODC has responded to the leak by saying "there has been an unfortunate misunderstanding about the nature and intent of this briefing paper".

In a statement, it admitted the paper was originally intended for presentation in Kuala Lumpur but said it remained under review and was not "a final nor formal document".

"UNODC emphatically denies reports that there has been pressure on UNODC to withdraw the document," it said, adding that "it is not possible to withdraw what is not yet ready."

Former Swiss president Ruth Dreifuss, a drug-reform advocate attending the Malaysia conference, said the legalisation movement is gaining ground.

"We see a real movement towards decriminalisation," she said.

"It's not the end of the story but that will be when using drugs are no longer considered unlawful."