Dried marijuana is pictured on a table in Montevideo...Dried marijuana is pictured on a table in Montevideo, August 9, 2012. Uruguay's government has sent a bill to Congress that would allow the state to grow and sell marijuana, a move that President Jose Mujica says will cut crime associated with illegal drug trafficking. REUTERS/Andres Stapff (URUGUAY - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW DRUGS SOCIETY) - RTR36L7S
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Early last year, eight prisoners from Brazil, Australia and Nigeria were taken to a field on a small island off the coast of Java and shot. 

Their fate came despite pleas for clemency from the leaders of Brazil and Australia, two countries that oppose the death penalty, but which fell on deaf ears. Joko Widodo, the Indonesia’s president, wanted to show he was tough in “the war on drugs”. 

The incident is one illustration of the increasingly divergent views about the $380bn a year trade in illegal drugs, differences that will be aired at a special UN general assembly in New York. 

“There is a growing global dissensus on drugs policy,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution. 

The US, once chief supporter of a tough law enforcement-based approach, has softened its position following an opiates epidemic among middle-class Americans and the legalisation of cannabis in some states.

Taking its role as regional policemen are East Asian countries such as China and also Russia, which has even called for the UN Security Council to have significantly increased powers to combat drug trafficking.

“It is necessary to use the same measures that we are applying to the leaders of terrorist organisations” against drug traffickers, Viktor Ivanov, head of Russia’s drug control agency, said last month. The strength of his comments has led some diplomats to speculate that Russia might offer support to Latin American law enforcement services if the US ever withdrew financial assistance.

The UN special assembly on drugs has been brought forward from 2019 at the request of three drug-ravaged Latin American countries — Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala. The last assembly in 1998 ended with the ringing declaration: “A drug free world: we can do it”.

Most analysts agree the approach has failed. Both demand and supplies have risen, while enforcement alone costs $100bn a year, about the same amount as global aid flows, but with little result. Afghanistan produces almost 90 per cent of the world’s heroin, despite serial military occupations.

Meanwhile, almost 100,000 Mexicans died in organised crime-related violence between 2006 and 2015, with “zero evidence that the supply of drugs going into the domestic American market was reduced at all”, says Ernesto Zedillo, the former Mexican president. Honduras’s homicide rate, meanwhile, of 84 murders per 100,000 people per year compares with 3.8 in the US or 0.8 in Spain.

One direct result of this bloodbath has been a growing clamour to take the business out of the hands of organised crime through state-regulated sales.

Latin America has led this debate; Uruguay, for example, legalised cannabis in 2013. Yet it enjoys little global resonance, other than in the US which has a large popular constituency for cannabis legalisation, increasingly backed by business.

“East Asia may have as much drug trafficking as Latin America, but it has a fraction of its violence. So there is just no impetus to reform there,” said Ms Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution. “In addition, ever since the Opium Wars of the 19th century, drug dependency there has been seen as a moral weakness.”

Europe straddles a middle ground, while Russia’s position is entwined with a nationalist narrative by President Vladimir Putin that casts drug reform as an example of western decadence.

As for the Middle East, “it has no major drug consumption problem, except for heroin in Iran and Afghanistan,” said Alejandro Hope, a former director of Mexico’s intelligence agency and now security editor at eldailypost.com. “That, plus innate cultural conservatism, such as a ban on alcohol, means the debate has not got off the ground.”

The result at the UN summit this week, based on a so-called “zero draft” document, will be a fudged resolution that sweeps several issues, such as cannabis legalisation, under the carpet.

Whether that matters is another question. “The whole UN exercise has become rather meaningless,” said Mr Hope. “It is clear by now that the international treaties governing drug control will not be modified in a major way soon, and many countries will anyway continue to violate them.”

In Latin America, the emphasis may also be shifting. Although Mexico requested the meeting, President Enrique Peña Nieto, who opposes drug legalisation, only decided to attend at the last moment.

“The holy grail of law enforcement now is why it has persisted in Asia, where the state remains strong and violence minimal, but has collapsed in Latin America, despite drug trafficking networks in both,” said Ms Felbab-Brown.

As for the official US position, it has been to encourage “flexibility”, which would allow the federal government to avoid interfering in state-level marijuana experiments but prevent a broader discussion about legalisation.

The first test of that new approach will be whether California votes this year to legalise cannabis — a decision bound to resonate in neighbouring Mexico, where smuggled cannabis accounts for a third of the estimated $6bn of annual revenues of local drug gangs.

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