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The War on Pot Is an Abject Failure ... Now's the Time for a New Approach

Calls for a new international framework for narcotics control are growing.

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Cannabis is the mainstay of the global War on Drugs. The U.N. has estimated that it is used regularly by 166 million people -- 4 percent of the global adult population, compared to 1 percent for all other illegal drugs combined. Under current international norms, anyone who possesses an illegal drug such as cannabis is treated as a serious criminal -- subject to the possibility of arrest, property seizure, imprisonment, denial of access to public benefits (such as financial aid for college or welfare), loss of child custody, and employment discrimination.  

As documented in the Report, there is no evidence that more rigorous enforcement has a significant deterrent effect, although there is extensive evidence that such enforcement causes considerable harms to those arrested and their communities. Nor is there evidence that a less punitive approach to cannabis control leads to any increase in the use of cannabis. Furthermore, although cannabis is more commonly traded within social networks than other illegal drugs, there are still illegal markets worth tens of billions of dollars to organized crime that sustain significant levels of violence in many countries.  

Almost fifty years after the adoption of an unequivocal international prohibition on cannabis in the 1961 Single Convention, we face a very different world. Yet, the U.N. Conventions restrict the ability of signatory countries to adapt to these changed circumstances and adopt more appropriate cannabis policies. They also restrict the accumulation of new evidence to inform the development of new evidence-based systems of control. While in principle these Conventions can be amended, this is not a practical possibility at the present time.  

The alternative, which is explored in the Commission's Draft Framework on Cannabis Control, is to adopt a new convention, which could be modeled on the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. This treaty, which was adopted in 2003 and came into force in 2005, was the first to be negotiated under WHO auspices.  

The Time Is Now  

The work of the Global Cannabis Commission is a compelling resource for the development of evidence-based cannabis policies and provides a model for reformers and policymakers to challenge the basic premises of marijuana prohibition. 

Today's drug chaos is the inevitable result of prohibition. Cannabis has been easily produced around the world for thousands of years, making its eradication effectively impossible. Prohibition entails the opposite of drug control by completely abdicating regulation to the black market -- as the Commission puts it, "That which is prohibited cannot be easily regulated."  

The tobacco example underscores the fact that drug regulation is not a step into the unknown -- we have centuries of experience in legally regulating thousands of different drugs. In fact, tobacco use has declined dramatically in the U.S. over the past generation without using the criminal justice system to punish tobacco users. 

If ever there were a time for political leaders, in the U.S. and abroad, to engage in an honest and open review of cannabis prohibition, it is now. In one of this year's most promising developments, U.S. Senators Jim Webb (D-VA) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) have introduced a bill to create a commission that would undertake an 18-month study of the criminal justice system and make legislative recommendations -- and an overhaul of cannabis laws will be on the table. Meanwhile, in Mexico, growing appetite for reform prompted the Mexican Congress to convene a three-day debate on the decriminalization and regulation of cannabis earlier this month. 

In contrast, President Obama appears a little caught off-guard by the public's appetite for marijuana reform. When recently forced to address the subject of marijuana legalization, he laughed it off but curiously offered no arguments to defend his position.  

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