No pressure, Colorado and Washington, but the world is scrutinizing your every move.
That was the take-home message of an event today at the Brookings Institution, discussing the international impact of the move toward marijuana legalization at the state-level in the U.S. Laws passed in Colorado and Washington, with other states presumably to come, create a tension with the U.S. obligations toward three major international treaties governing drug control. Historically the U.S. has been a strong advocate of all three conventions, which “commit the United States to punish and even criminalize activity related to recreational marijuana,” according to Brookings’ Wells Bennet.
The U.S. response to this tension has thusfar been to call for more “flexibility” in how countries interpret them. This policy was made explicit in recent remarks by Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield, who last week at the United Nations said that “we have to be tolerant of different countries, in response to their own national circumstances and conditions, exploring and using different national drug control policies.” He went on: “How could I, a representative of the Government of the United States of America, be intolerant of a government that permits any experimentation with legalization of marijuana if two of the 50 states of the United States of America have chosen to walk down that road?”
As far as policy stances go this is an aggressively pragmatic solution. The federal government lacks the resources and perhaps the political will to crack down on the legalization states, but it also likely doesn’t want to openly admit that it’s allowing regulation regimes that openly contradict the provisions of major treaties. By saying that those treaties allow for interpretation, the government is attempting to carve out some space to allow legalization experiments to continue with minimal boat-rocking.
But as Wells Bennet and John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America write in a new Brookings report, that position will “rapidly become implausible and unsustainable if legalization spreads and succeeds.” At today’s event, Martin Jelsma of the Transnational Institute, an international think tank, agreed: “The U.S. is hesitant to acknowledge that the legal regulation [of marijuana] is a direct violation of the treaty system… you have reached the limit of what you can defend applying the most flexible interpretation of the treaty system.”
As a result, the panelists at the event were in agreement that it’s time to explore a multilateral reworking of the drug control treaties to better reflect current realities – particularly, to begin the process of re-scheduling marijuana, which international law currently considers one of the most dangerous drugs(despite decades of evidence to the contrary).
Sandeep Chawla, former deputy director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, called the current restrictions on marijuana “the weakest point of this whole control system, something that has been obvious for 30 years.” He noted that one of the main obstacles to meaningful reform is layers of entrenched drug control bureaucracies at the international and national levels – just in the U.S., think of the DEA, ONDCP and NIDA, among others – for whom a relaxation of drug control laws represents an undermining of their reason for existence: “if you create a bureaucracy to solve a particular problem, when the problem is solved that bureaucracy is out of a job,” he explained.
Lisa Sanchez, a program manager at México Unido Contra la Delincuencia, a Mexican non-profit devoted to promoting “security, legality and justice,” underscored how legalization efforts in the U.S. are having powerful ripple effects across the globe: events in Colorado and Washington have “created political space for Latin American countries to have a real debate [about drug policy].” She noted that motivations for reform in Latin America are somewhat different than U.S. motivations – one main driver is a need to address the epidemic of violence on those countries that is fueled directly by prohibitionist drug war policies.
Many countries are now taking a close look at what’s happening in the states to learn lessons that can be applied to their own situations. And so far, the news coming out of Colorado and Washington is overwhelmingly positive: dire consequences predicted by reform opponents have failed to materialize. If anything, societal and economic indicators are moving in a positive direction post-legalization. Colorado marijuana tax revenues for fiscal year 2014-2015 are on track to surpass projections.
Countries, particularly in Latin America, are starting to apply these lessons in order to craft smarter policies that reduce violence and other societal harms brought about by the drug war. Uruguay, for instance, has moved toward full national legalization of marijuana, with an eye toward reducing the thriving black market there. Mexico’s president has given signs he’s open to changes in that country’s marijuana laws to help combat cartel violence. The Organization of American States recently issued a statement in favor of dealing with drug use as a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice one.
Regardless the eventual direction of marijuana legalization in the U.S., steps toward reform here are already prompting other countries to seek out more pragmatic solutions to their drug problems. In short, they’re making the world a better place.