The International Drug Control Treaties

How Important Are They to U.S. Drug Reform?
Heather J. Haase, Nicolas Edward Eyle, and Joshua Raymond Schrimpf
New York City Bar Association Committee on Drugs & the Law
August 2012

nycb-treatiesThe way the world looks at drug control is changing. There has been a growing awareness of the issue for the past decade, as well as increasing public outcry over what many see as a failure of the once popular "war on drugs." Nowhere is this battle more pronounced than in the so-called "marijuana wars," which are slowly growing into an old-fashioned standoff between the states and the federal government.

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As of August 2012, seventeen states (and the District of Columbia) have passed laws legalizing medical use of marijuana, several states have introduced initiatives to outright legalize the use of recreational marijuana, and now there are two proposed federal bills designed to lift the ban on marijuana. The Gallup polls show that at least 70% of Americans support legalizing marijuana for medical use and now over 50% are in favor of its legalization for recreational use as well.

With so much movement in the area and so much public support, many are asking, what’s the holdup? Why is the federal government so vehemently resisting the liberalization of a policy that seems to be inevitable?

Lately, all eyes have been on the Obama Administration, which, with the reversal on its marijuana policy, has baffled the drug reform community and often, the public at large. One of President Obama’s campaign promises was to leave the issue of medical marijuana to state governments, stating, "I'm not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue." Indeed, his Administration first declared a policy of non-enforcement against medical marijuana dispensaries operating in full compliance with state laws. Over the past year, however, the Administration has backtracked, famously announcing a "crackdown" on not only dispensaries, but also landlords, banks, media outlets and all but the sickest of patients taking advantage of the medical marijuana laws.

So why the switch? Drug reformers are flummoxed by the change in tune. Ethan Nadelmann, who many see as the voice of the drug reform movement in the U.S., said recently of the Administration’s new position, "None of this makes any sense in terms of public safety, health or fiscal policy." Even Mr. Nadelmann seems stumped by the current situation.

Meanwhile, more liberal marijuana laws seem to be sprouting up everywhere in countries around the world: Denmark, Spain, the UK, and now Uruguay and Colombia, to name a few. World leaders and former leaders across Europe and most recently, Latin America, have been speaking up in increasing numbers, all saying the same thing: It’s time for the world to start thinking about legalization.

Given that there is so much domestic and international pressure, what could possibly account for the Administration’s resistance? Is it simply that drug reform is lower priority when compared to looming issues such as the economy and unemployment? Or is there more at stake?

We at the New York City Bar Association’s Committee on Drugs & the Law suspected that the problem was more complicated. We formed a special subcommittee to study the true implications of international law on domestic drug policy reform. Members of the subcommittee travelled to Vienna to attend the yearly sessions of the United Nation’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs in 2011 and 2012, and interviewed current and former diplomats and dignitaries working at the international level of drug control, in order to gain a more thorough and politically informed understanding of the worldwide drug control system and its implications for domestic drug policy. The Committee’s findings—ongoing, as this area is vast and complex—have thus far been extremely enlightening.

While everyone seems to have an opinion on drug reform, one thing most of the legal analyses have in common is that they are limited in scope to domestic factors. Missing from even the most sophisticated analysis conducted in the U.S. is a discussion about the international legal system—as embodied in three international drug control treaties to which the U.S. is signatory. Through our work, we have grown to understand the vast importance of these treaties in the world of international relations, as well as to domestic drug reform.