BY DAVE BRYAN
ASSOCIATED PRESS

UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- The United Nations has a golden opportunity to promote alternate approaches to global drug policy next month when it meets in New York for a special session, but a high-profile commission said Friday that the work leading up to the meeting has so far been disappointing.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy - whose members include former presidents of Mexico and Brazil, as well as former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson - said in a statement that on-going discussions in Vienna drafting the session's outcome document rely too heavily on an outdated law-and-order approach that emphasizes criminal justice and prohibition.

Ilona Szabo de Carvalho, the group's coordinator, said the emphasis should be on alternative approaches to fighting the problem, including decriminalization, abolishing capital punishment for drug-related offenses and a focus on treatment.

Instead, she said, the preparation talks are relying too heavily on traditional methods of fighting drug trafficking and related crimes.

De Carvalho called for a broad political debate on alternative measures at the U.N. General Assembly Special Session on April 19.

U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime Executive Director Yury Fedotov said in prepared remarks to be delivered Monday that preparation for the special session has included new approaches including a call for treatment and services for drug-related cases of HIV, hepatitis and overdose.

"Moreover, it has helped to put the spotlight on considering, in appropriate drug-related cases of a minor nature, including possession for personal consumption, alternatives to conviction or punishment, using such measures as education, aftercare, rehabilitation and social reintegration," he says.

De Carvalho said there have been "some amazing advances," since the last special session on drugs 18 years ago.

The commission pointed to new approaches in dealing with drug issues in countries including Portugal, which decriminalized the use of all drugs in 2001 resulting in significant crime prevention and a decrease in rates of HIV.

Uruguay has regulated its cannabis market from production to distribution to sales while emphasizing human rights in its strategy, it said.

The commission cited the U.S. as well, noting that 23 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes and there is now a vigorous debate about how to transform drug policies to reduce the number of people incarcerated in jails and prisons on minor drug offenses.

Such policies, the commission argues, disempower organized crime entities that supply drugs and put governments back in control of the problem.

"Drugs are dangerous, but current narcotics policies are an even bigger threat," said Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general, in a statement. "This is because punishment is given a greater priority than health and human rights. Prohibition has had virtually no impact on the supply of or demand for illicit drugs."