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Weed and the UN: Why International Drug Laws Won't Stop Legalization

The international treaties that keep weed outlawed won't change after the UN’s drug summit, but the US, Uruguay, and others will still be able to legalize.
Imagen por Jaime Saldarriaga/Reuters

The last time the United Nations held a special meeting on drug policy in June 1998, Sarah Merrigan was six years old. Google didn't exist yet, Apple was barely turning a profit, and only one state — California — had legalized medical marijuana.

Today, Merrigan is a 23-year-old senior at the University of Nebraska, Google and Apple are the world's two most valuable companies, and 24 US states allow some form of medical marijuana. Four — Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska — plus Washington, DC permit adults to use pot recreationally. Uruguay has legalized marijuana at the national level. But while much has changed in 11 years, the international laws on drugs, including cannabis, remain virtually the same as they've been since 1961, when the UN's Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs officially made weed as tightly restricted as heroin.


Merrigan is also an organizer with the group Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and she led a protest outside UN headquarters on Monday ahead of the three-day United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drug policy — which happens to fall on April 20, the "420" date that serves as the unofficial high holiday for marijuana enthusiasts around the globe. In Merrigan's eyes, the current US approach to weed sends a mixed message to the rest of the world.

Related: The DEA Plans to Decide Soon Whether the US Will Keep Treating Marijuana Like Heroin

"I don't think it's a solution at all," Merrigan said, referring to claims by US officials that the UN drug treaties are "flexible" enough to allow for state-level legalization. "A decade ago we weren't comfortable with 'flexibility' — it's only now that we have four states going against the treaties."

Under the outcome document for UNGASS that was drafted by diplomats last month in Vienna and formally adopted on Tuesday at UN headquarters in New York, weed still remains strictly banned by the treaties that govern international law. It won't force the US and Uruguay to change their systems, nor will it compel countries like Russia and China to soften their draconian policies.

For members of civil society, the intransigence is a real problem that threatens to undermine the legitimacy of all types of international treaties. John Walsh, the senior associate for drug policy and the Andes at the Washington Institute on Latin America, is hosting one of two weed-focused "side events" scheduled this week at the UN. The discussion will focus on how countries can legalize weed while still abiding by the current drug treaties — a thorny question that the US has largely chosen to ignore.


'Cannabis is clearly the elephant in the room at UNGASS. It's there, it's huge, but no one wants to talk about it.'

"Cannabis is clearly the elephant in the room at UNGASS," Walsh said. "It's there, it's huge, but no one wants to talk about it."

So far, US officials have argued that state-level legalization in Colorado and other states does not violate international law because the drug remains illegal at the federal level. In a briefing paper published ahead of UNGASS, Walsh essentially called bullshit on this claim, writing that the move "appears to reflect political expediency rather than convincing legal reasoning." Speaking to VICE News, he also pointed out that the drug treaties, which the US championed for decades, explicitly outlaw recreational pot smoking.

"It's like saying the world has agreed this color is purple for 50 years and today we say it's pink," Walsh said of the about-face on weed by US officials. "That's our new unilateral assertion, but there's no basis in the law for doing that."

In contrast to the US, Uruguay has argued that its marijuana policy — citizens are allowed to grow up to six plants at home, and government-approved growing "clubs" are permitted to cultivate up to 99 plants — is allowed under international law because human rights concerns trump drug-control treaties. Walsh said he's sympathetic to that argument, but it's clear that the treaties still unambiguously outlaw weed.


Related: How Russia Became the New Global Leader in the War on Drugs

In his briefing paper, Walsh laid out four options for treaty reform that would get the US and Uruguay in compliance. Two of the options he presents, however, would require approval from a majority of UN member states, and there simply is not enough support worldwide for weed legalization to make those moves possible. The other two possibilities are more individualized, involving actions by a single country or a small group, but they're still politically challenging to execute. It's much easier for the US to maintain that there's no need to change the status quo.

"In one country you can be on death row for doing something and in another you can be doing good business," he said. "There's no consensus. The idea that we're ready for everyone to come together and revise the treaties even for something specific on cannabis reform, there are no conditions like that for now."

Indeed, while Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has vowed to legalize weed in the coming months, and calls for ending the drug war have grown louder in the US and handful of nations in Latin America and Western Europe, the majority of countries remain strictly prohibitionist.

The other weed-focused side event at UNGASS is hosted by Kevin Sabet, a former Obama administration adviser in the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the director of the University of Florida's Drug Policy Institute. Sabet also works as a consultant, and is perhaps the most vocal opponent of marijuana legalization in the US.


Watch the VICE News documentary Inside America's Billion-Dollar Weed Business: The Grass Is Greener

"Moving forward, there's really no way to spin the fact that legalization and these sorts of legalization and regulation policies are really not on the table at all," Sabet said. "With the exception of Uruguay and Canada making a statement, you're not going to have others, including the US, trumpet legalization at all."

Sabet insists that he's not opposed to reforming drug laws to keep pot smokers out of prison. Rather than full-blown Colorado-style legalization, he advocates for a policy that may appeal to more moderate countries looking for a gradual shift away from outright prohibition into something that resembles the Dutch system of decriminalization, where it's still officially illegal to grow and sell weed, but possessing it for personal use is kosher.

"We want to implement evidence-based treatment and prevention," Sabet said. "We want education and health-oriented approach. That would be a radically different policy than they have in many countries. When we get into nitty gritty of reform, countries get really squeamish about legalization."

This strategy is far from ideal — drugs in the Netherlands are still supplied by criminal groups, and competition for the trade is currently fuelling a bloody gang war — but there's no denying that it would be a vast improvement for some countries in the Middle East and Asia, where drug users are routinely executed.


Related: Trouble in Europe's Pot Paradise: A Bloody Gang War Is Raging in Amsterdam

"We do want reform, we don't want the death penalty for drug offenses, we're against punitive measures, but we don't think it's so black and white," Sabet said. "It's not a dichotomy where you have to criminalize and throw people in solitary confinement, but you don't have to encourage their behavior by legalizing either."

Not everybody is buying that argument, particularly those who are familiar with the behavior of law enforcement when it comes to drugs. Diane Goldstein, a former police lieutenant in California who is now a board member of the pro-marijuana law reform organization Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), said Sabet's view is fundamentally flawed.

'What they're talking about is a gentler, kinder drug war.'

"What they're talking about is a gentler, kinder drug war," Goldstein said. "The problem is with the criminalization still on the books, you give law enforcement all the power to decide how it's going to be enforced. What that does is it creates inconsistency among enforcement practices and it contributes to the ongoing systemic racial injustices around enforcement of our drug laws. He's wrong. He's dead wrong."

The mere fact that such debates are happening marks a step forward in a conversation that for decades was dominated by prohibitionist rhetoric, but the reality is that, at least in the immediate future, nothing about marijuana in the UN treaties will change. That won't stop more US states from legalizing weed in the coming year, as California is expected to do in the November election.

"On Friday [after UNGASS], when people wake up, the same situation will prevail," Walsh said. "The treaties are unchanged and there are governments that are currently contravening them and others will follow. Nothing that happens will prevent others from moving forward. The question is how are they going to do that? Is it going to weaken international law or strengthen it?"

Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton