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50% of Americans Want Marijuana Legal, 70% Want Medicinal Pot -- Are International Treaties Standing in the Way of Legalization?

Missing from US-conducted analyses is a discussion about the international legal system – as embodied in the three international drug control treaties.

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In the end, Bolivia withdrew from the Convention because it could not reconcile its domestic law with its international obligations. If a federal law were to pass in the United States that was irreconcilable with its treaty obligations, could the U.S. find itself in a similar position? 

A Complicated International System – what does the future hold?

It has been said that the 1961 Single Convention itself was “the product of an extremely complex interplay of forces: geopolitical, economic, cultural, diplomatic, and personal.”  One thing that is evident is that U.S. drug control is intertwined in some very complex ways with the international system as a whole. Viewed in this context, there may be some very real reasons that the Obama Administration appears staunchly opposed to even the most informal discussion about marijuana legalization.

Indeed, if marijuana is legalized, what will become of the treaties and the international system as a whole? The options for reform under the treaties as they stand today are limited. On the other hand, one could say that revision of the treaties, or even entry into a new treaty system, is inevitable given the eroding of the system by the “soft” challenges, and now the blatant “hard” challenges posed by the Bolivian coca leaf reservation and, especially, pending marijuana legislation in the U.S. After all, if the system stops working, isn’t it best to change the system?  According to Melvyn Levitsky, “It’s perfectly legal within the international system to withdraw from the convention if there’s a way to do it.”

But if international drug control is such a bedrock of international relations, what else might change if those laws are reformed? To what extent would such changes affect our relationship with other countries--for example, the Russian Federation, currently a major influence in the Commission on Narcotic Drugs and staunchly opposed to legalization? What about China? 

We may be about to find out. At the 55 th Session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs held in Vienna this past March, high-level member country delegates sat side by side with NGO representatives at a luncheon and, for the first time, politely debated the future of the Conventions. Mike Trace speculates that “quiet diplomacy” surrounding the marijuana issue may already be underway. Even Gustavo de Greiff said of the recent Summit of Americas meeting that he “had some dose of optimism … because it was the first time that the drug problem was publicly discussed by the highest public functionaries of the region.” At its glacial pace, the international system may at last be unraveling – and with it, possibly, the end to the “standoff” between the Administration and the drug reform community. What other changes are close behind?

As they say, change is never easy, but ever interesting. In the case of international drug control, reform could prove to be not so much mood-altering, as world-altering.