United Nations Chris Hondros
The United Nations logo on the back wall of the General Assembly Hall. Chris Hondros/Getty Images

“A Drug Free World — We can do it!” declared the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem in 1998, the last time the U.N. addressed global drug policy. Among the goals set out at the session was the reduction, if not outright eradication, of illegal cocaine, opium and cannabis production by 2008.

Now, with a new U.N. special session on drug policy scheduled to take place next month in New York, creating a drug-free world is no longer a realistic part of the agenda.

Instead, world leaders and activists around the globe are calling for the U.N. to use the session to move the global war on drugs away from criminalization and prohibition and toward criminal justice reform, public health efforts and human rights initiatives.

Last month, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who headed the world organization in 1998, declared: “We need to accept that a drug-free world is an illusion,” saying it was time to legalize and regulate personal drug use. Earlier this week, one of the United States’ top drug officials, William Brownfield, assistant secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, signaled that the Obama administration accepted other countries’ decriminalization efforts. As he told reporters at UNGASS 2016, “We will call for pragmatic and concrete criminal justice reform, areas such as alternatives to incarceration or drug courts, or sentencing reform.”

Many nonprofits would like the administration to go further. On Thursday, more than 225 nongovernmental organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and AIDS United, sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging a bold push at the U.N. that could lead to reforming the international drug conventions that have long shaped narcotics laws around the world.

It’s no coincidence that Annan, Brownfield and the letter from the NGOs all reference the fact that four U.S. states and the District of Columbia have legalized adult marijuana use. That’s because cannabis legalization efforts risk leaving the United States in violation of the tough international drug policies it has championed for decades, while demonstrating that the social impact of such violations is far from catastrophic. In other words, U.S. marijuana legalization at the state level, pushed by referendums, might have an unintended consequence: It could force the United States’ hand in leading a seismic shift in global drug policy.

Since 1961, the global war on drugs has been defined by the U.N.’s Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which focused on the duty to “prevent and combat” the evil of drug addiction. That convention and two subsequent amendments required the 154 nations that ratified it to enact “adequate punishment” for the unauthorized cultivation, production or possession of cannabis, opium, coca derivatives and other narcotics. As a whole, these U.N. drug conventions have discouraged countries from exploring alternative approaches to drug policy, since any attempt to legalize a particular drug would be seen as a treaty violation.

But over the past few decades, a growing number of countries have pushed back against the U.N. drug conventions’ prohibition-based tactics, despite the continuing hardline stances of great powers nations such as China, Russia and the United States. Inspired in part by the extreme violence of the drug war in Mexico — where an estimated 164,000 people were murdered between 2007 and 2014 — various Latin American countries have decriminalized possession of minor drugs. And at a 2005 meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the U.N.’s central decision-making body on drug policy, the European Union began advocating for harm-reduction strategies such as needle-exchange programs, with many other countries endorsing the move.

Calls for a new approach to global drug problems have increased in recent years, fueled in part by proliferating experiments with legalized marijuana in the United States. In 2012, Colorado and Washington state voted to allow adult cannabis use; two years later, in August 2014, Uruguay legalized a state-controlled marijuana market as a way to address crime and health issues. Later that year, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., legalized cannabis, and in 2015 new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signaled he would launch a legal marijuana system nationwide, while in Mexico the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of personal cannabis use.

Marijuana Legality by State | InsideGov

“Historically, the United States has stood in the way of drug policy reform in other countries, and I would go so far as to say the U.S. has bullied other countries into not enacting drug policy reforms,” said Tom Angell, founder of the cannabis advocacy group Marijuana Majority. “Now there’s a feedback loop where state-level legalization in the U.S. is emboldening other countries to legalize marijuana, which is forcing the U.S. government to stop trying to stand in the way of reform around the world.”

That's why the letter the coalition of NGOs sent to President Obama Thursday noted the United States’ ongoing support of stringent drug-war tactics “is likely to face shrinking credibility internationally as legalization spreads to more states.” Instead, the organizations urged the administration to consider bold moves at the upcoming U.N. session that “would leave a legacy in global drug policy that is better aligned to the direction you've steered domestic policy.” Among other things, the letter called for opposing drug-offense death penalties in countries like Iran and Indonesia; promoting needle exchanges and other harm-reduction programs on the global stage; and championing criminal justice reforms designed to address spiraling incarceration rates, racial disparities and the unprecedented number of women behind bars because of drugs.

“Our view as we expressed in the letter is the U.S. stance for UNGASS is a short-term one,” said Dave Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org, who helped lead the endeavor. “The administration has taken the stance that the treaties have a lot of flexibility, and countries should have the right to set new drug policies up to and including legalization. But it’s been weak in that the idea of flexibility is being co-opted by countries that have real draconian policies like the death penalty for drug offenses, and the U.S. should take a stand on that. Flexibility should be bounded by human rights. Protecting human rights is the fundamental goal of the U.N. charter.”

The letter also demands that “this UNGASS affords a true opportunity for an open and broad-ranging debate on the full set of drug policy issues of concern in the world today.” Those aren’t just empty words. The Commission on Narcotic Drugs is meeting in Vienna next week to finalize a “UNGASS Outcomes Document” for the special session, which means there might not be many points left up for discussion when member nations meet on the issue in April. And considering the latest draft of that outcomes document still aims to “actively promote a society free of drug abuse,” some observers are concerned the U.N. session could end up largely reaffirming the status quo.

“There is movement to get the UNGASS documentation largely drafted during the Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting,” Borden said. “We and other NGOs are largely unhappy about this. That wasn’t the intent of the UNGASS, and we think the whole world should be involved in what to do about drug policy.”

Finally, the NGOs behind the letter say the U.N. session should broach the weighty subject of updating the U.N. drug conventions that have long held sway over international narcotics laws. And, once again, legalization efforts in the United States could provide part of the impetus for such changes to happen. After all, if the country continues to legalize cannabis use, either on a state-by-state basis or eventually at the federal level, the United States would be hard-pressed to argue it’s not in violation of the drug conventions itself. Other countries have circumnavigated this dilemma. When Bolivia wanted to allow for traditional uses of coca leaf, it withdrew from the conventions in 2011 and then rejoined two years later with a reservation allowing for such customs. But having one of the U.N. drug convention’s staunchest supporters make an exception for marijuana would likely be too much for other member nations to swallow without a major revision to the drug conventions.

“I think marijuana legalization has put the issue of treaty reform on the table for the first time,” said Borden. “It’s really an exciting time to be doing a letter like this, where there are such incredible voices at the top level of these organizations who are willing to sign on to it. ”

Maybe it’s fitting then that the 2016 UNGASS will take place from April 19 to 21 — just in time to celebrate 4/20, the unofficial marijuana holiday.