State Department's Top Drug Warrior Seeks to Loosen Drug Control Rules


“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?”

That’s the rhetorical question posed by Assistant Secretary of State for Drugs and Law Enforcement William R. Brownfield last Thursday as he delivered a briefing in New York before attending a United Nations committee meeting on international narcotics control. Secretary Brownfield spoke about the need for “flexible interpretation” of UN Drug Control Conventions in place since 1961, signaling a huge sea change in how the United States pursues the international war on drugs.

These UN treaties mandate that all signatories agree to the prohibition of certain drugs, with severe trade penalties for those countries that violate the treaty. This is why efforts to relax marijuana penalties internationally have always come in the form of decriminalization.  The famous marijuana coffee shops of Amsterdam, for instance, aren’t technically legal, but sales of small amounts of marijuana aren’t prosecuted and officials try to turn a blind eye to the back end of cultivation and supply.

So long as marijuana is technically illegal, these countries don’t violate the treaties. So Portugal, Spain, the Czech Republic and others have varying degrees of marijuana decriminalization even when they might prefer legalization. “My Danish friends warn me to be careful with my marijuana in Denmark,” says travel writer and NORML board member Rick Steves, referring to the de facto legal marijuana in the Christiania section of Copenhagen: “They have to arrest one or two pot smokers a year to maintain Favored Nation trading status with the United States.”

Uruguay rocked the international boat when it made the production, sales and possession of marijuana legal last year. Uruguayan legalization comes with many restrictions. It is limited to registered residents only and available only through limited government suppliers. But it is that step beyond criminalization that triggers the penalties outlined in the UN drug control treaties.

Now, with legalization proceeding without federal interference in Colorado and Washington, accusations of American hypocrisy are forcing the ship of state to make the slow turn toward acceptance of legalization as a valid international response to drug control.  Secretary Brownfield opened his remarks by outlining “four pillars” for the international community on which to base future drug control policy:

"First, respect the integrity of the existing UN Drug Control Conventions.

"Second, accept flexible interpretation of those conventions. The first of them was drafted and enacted in 1961. Things have changed since 1961. …

"Third, to tolerate different national drug policies, to accept the fact that some countries will have very strict drug approaches; other countries will legalize entire categories of drugs. … We must have some tolerance for those differing policies.

"And our fourth pillar is agreement and consensus that whatever our approach and policy may be on legalization, decriminalization, de-penalization, we all agree to combat and resist the criminal organizations – not those who buy, consume, but those who market and traffic the product for economic gain."

When pressed by reporters as to what that newfound tolerance means with respect to actual policy making, Secretary Brownfield was reluctant to be pinned down. 

“We are all required to abide by the conventions that we ourselves have ratified," he said. "But the conventions are not rigid.… We are allowed to interpret them so long as our interpretation is still consistent with our universal desire to reduce the misuse and abuse of harmful products throughout the world.”

So, according to my reading of the Secretary’s remarks, if “Uruguay has, as they prefer to say, regulated marijuana,” to reduce drug abuse, that’s tolerable. But if Saudi Arabia has “capital punishment for those who traffic in product” to reduce drug abuse, that’s tolerable, too. There appears to be nothing in the treaties or the secretary’s remarks indicating an objective way of determining whose approach actually reduces drug abuse to determine what is internationally tolerable.

What sort of integrity within UN Drug Conventions can we respect if every nation’s subjective evaluation of drug policy is tolerable?  These remarks are good news for those states and nations wanting to legalize marijuana but they reveal a bankrupt ideology of drug prohibition that needs to be abolished, not flexibly interpreted. Having a prohibition not intended to be enforced breeds greater disrespect for the law than one that is enforced.

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