Press release hoax had claimed UN office on drugs and crime recommended decriminalizing marijuana and other liberal policies before UNGASS summit
As the United Nations held its first General Assembly in 18 years to discuss narcotics policy, many activists for reform – and no doubt many recreational users – hoped that the international body would liberalize current treaties that outlaw drugs.
They may have found hope in a Los Angeles Times story that reported the UN’s office on drugs and crime recommended decriminalizing drug use, the end of drug crime executions and the mandatory minimum drug sentences.
The story, published at the start of the United Nations general assembly special session, UNGASS, included comments from several UN officials, press releases and links to what appeared to be the UNODC website.
All appear to have been part of an elaborate hoax, first unearthed by Marijuana.com.
“I was catching up on coverage coming out of UNGASS, because it’s been a busy week with UNGASS itself, and 4/20, and various other marijuana-related things,” said Tom Angell, a marijuana activist and journalist for Marijuana.com, who first investigated the hoax.
“I came across the quote from Yury Fedotov, and the spokesperson, and just immediately knew they couldn’t be real based on UNODC’s real position,” he said.
In the LA Times story, Fedotov, who really is the executive director of the United Nations office on drugs and crime was quoted in a statement that appeared to mark a dramatic U-turn on the past five decades of international drug policy.
The science increasingly supports decriminalization and harm reduction over proscriptive, fear-based approaches,” UNODC Executive Director Yuri Fedotov said in a statement Tuesday. “It’s time to reverse the cycles of violence that occur wherever ‘drug wars’ are undertaken, and to abandon policies that exacerbate suffering.”
Other quotes were attributed to the UNODC spokesperson “Kevin Campo”, a fictitious name that appears to have been cobbled together from the names of two real UNODC spokespersons, Kevin Town and Carlos Gomez del Campo.
In another fake press release on a UNODC dummy site, “Campo” said that, “The UNODC is proud to take its cue from a popular movement supporting marijuana decriminalization in particular, which claims as its annual holiday 4/20, or 20 April, the central date of this year’s UNGASS.” The dummy site appears almost identical to the original, save a slightly different URL.
The hoax was so elaborate, that a fake press release condemned the first fake statements, by explaining the UNODC’s policy on celebration of 4/20.
The United Nations does not recognize ‘4/20’,” said a fake release attributed to a real UNODC spokesperson David Dadge. “And although we wish we had good news for the folks who do, some large and powerful states still insist on blocking the majority’s desire to decriminalize, which means that this senseless war on people will continue.”
Asked by the Guardian, Town said the UNODC is “looking into resolving this”.
The Los Angeles Times issued a prominent correction on the story, saying: “Though the UN was examining policy changes, that statement was based on a news release that was a hoax … The article also quotes Kevin Campo, who is identified in the fake news release as a spokesman for the UN agency. He is not an agency spokesman.”
Some quotes from Fedotov in the piece came from an email conversation with the Russian UN official. The newspaper declined to comment further on the incident.
Although some activists had hoped that this week’s meeting would lead to progressive reforms of drug policy, the UN instead backed a continuation of repressive tactics and did not offer an opinion on capital punishment. Speaking at the event, the president of the International Narcotics Control Board called legal marijuana “in clear contravention of the conventions”.