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A Top UN Official Is Not Happy About US States Legalizing Weed

The organization's anti-narcotics chief said recent votes to legalize marijuana violate the international conventions that guide global drug policy.

by Samuel Oakford
Nov 13 2014, 9:55am

Photo by Brennan Linsley/AP

The UN's top narcotics official said on Wednesday that recent votes by US states to legalize marijuana have put America in deeper violation of the international conventions that guide drug policy around the world.

Earlier this month, voters in Oregon and Alaska legalized the recreational use and sale of marijuana, and Washington DC residents approved legalized possession and transfer of small amounts. Ballot initiatives legalizing sale have already passed and taken effect in Colorado and Washington.

"I don't see how (the new laws) can be compatible with existing conventions," Yury Fedotov, chief of the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) told reporters. Fedotov added that he would take up the issue with American and UN officials next week.

Those conventions — the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotics, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs — inform virtually every country's national drug laws. For many years, most nations followed the lead of the US and other prohibitionist governments, adopting harsh interpretations of the conventions, locking up millions for non-violent drug crimes, and pushing users underground. But today, as more countries recognize the immense damages caused by the war on drugs, they've struggled to distinguish what reforms are merely rolling back existing interpretations of the conventions, and what moves constitute breach of international law.

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Though decriminalization — a path Portugal quietly and successfully followed in 2001 — is allowable under a liberal interpretation of the UN conventions, legalized markets for recreational use of illicit drugs such as marijuana are explicitly prohibited.

'The US is violating the treaties. But the question is, are these treaties still fit for the 21st century?'

Legalization at the state level has put American officials in a sticky situation. On October 9, the State Department's top international drug policy negotiator, William Brownfield, repeated to reporters that he had no choice but construe the conventions in a more "flexible" manner, as he put it.

"How could I, as a representative of the Government of the United States of America, be intolerant of a government that permits experimentation with legalization of marijuana if two of the 50 states of the United States of America have chosen to walk down that road?" Brownfield asked.

"Things have changed since 1961," Brownfield added. "We must have enough flexibility to allow us to incorporate those changes into [the UN] policies."

But flexibility only goes so far, and the so-called "Brownfield Doctrine," consisting of bending — but not breaking the conventions — has frustrated some drug policy advocates. In the same October briefing, Brownfield made clear that the conventions are going nowhere, despite their harms.

Tom Blickman, a researcher at the Transnational Institute's Drugs and Democracy Program, told VICE News that the balancing act can only last so long.

"Fedotov is right — the US is violating the treaties," Blickman said. "But the question is, are these treaties still fit for the 21st century?"

Paramilitaries are eradicating California's illegal marijuana grows. Read more here.

Blickman says the US would prefer to chip away at enforcement, or even ignore certain parts of the convention. It's an easy out given the US history of foisting interdiction on the rest of the world, but it's also a problematic strategy in the realm of international law. "The US doesn't want to touch the treaties, so they have to stay in this strange discourse which is contradictory," Blickman said.

Because the treaty system guides both the treatment of drug users and the handling of international crime, the US fears dismantling the framework will create new problems. Though officials like Brownfield for the first time are speaking publicly of the ills of the drug war, new powers, particularly Russia, have filled the role long played by the US.

After annexing Crimea in March, the Kremlin banned opioid-replacement therapies like methadone, bringing the territory in line with national Russian law, and sending addicts scrambling. Such therapies have been shown to lower HIV rates; in Russia, nearly 40 percent of intravenous drug users are believed to have HIV.

Despite a planned 2016 General Assembly Special Session dedicated to drugs, it is unlikely that convening will lead to a complete rethinking of drug laws.

"There is little chance for consensus on that," Blickman said. "It is a very difficult situation. There are still a large group of countries that don't want to change anything."

Some nations haven't waited around for superpowers or the UN to decide. Uruguay legalized marijuana in 2014, and Bolivia withdrew from the conventions in 2011, then recommitted the following year with the stipulation that they be allowed to maintain a legal domestic market for coca. A majority of UN member states approved Bolivia's decision. 

Despite a subsequent drop in production of coca — the raw plant material used to manufacture cocaine — the US decertified Bolivia for failing "to make sufficient efforts to meet its obligations under the international counter-narcotic agreements," which is essentially what Fedotov is accusing the US of doing.

Study claims marijuana is addictive, damaging to the brain, and linked to schizophrenia. Read more here.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford