The Pot Heard 'Round the World
Nov 03, 2016 10:01AM ● Published by Leland Rucker
International prohibitions on cannabis are crumbling as more and more countries begin to legalize, decriminalize or begin to question the wisdom of prohibition and incarceration of citizens for using narcotic and psychotropic substances. And they are looking to states like Colorado for guidance and consultation to find out how that might happen.
At least 15 countries have already eased their laws for medical use of cannabis, and others are seriously considering decriminalization or outright legalization. Italy is an example. Though cannabis was decriminalized in 2014, anyone caught growing it, even for medical purposes, can get seven years in prison. A recent independent report that one in four people in Italian jails are there for drug-related offenses got the attention of Italy’s Parliament, which is set to debate whether or not to set up a system similar to Colorado’s.
In Spain, certain communities and cities allow cannabis clubs—Catalonia has more than 200—and single or small-scale grows are tolerated. Discussions have continued since last year’s elections to come up with a legal government system for distribution and sale.
Though it is technically illegal, cannabis use has been tolerated since 1976 in Amsterdam through its coffee-house distribution system. Portugal decriminalized use of all drugs in 2001 and pushes rehabilitation over incarceration, with positive results so far. And Australia’s Parliament, which has favored a similar, treatment-based approach to drug use over imprisonment, is beginning to discuss full legalization.
“It’s completely on an unprecedented scale,” says Denver attorney Brian Vicente, a co-author of Amendment 64 whose law firm consults with countries looking at legalization reform. “Major countries are looking to make changes. There is a ton of international interest. They’re looking at Colorado and seeing there is an alternative.”
In the Western Hemisphere, things are moving even more urgently than in Europe. In 2013, Uruguay became the first country to legalize the sale of cannabis for recreational purposes. Today, the country continues to roll out a government-run system for growing and distribution.
Thanks mostly to Rastafarianism, which treats cannabis as a sacrament, and the worldwide dissemination of reggae music, Jamaica’s government is finally acknowledging cannabis as part of its culture. Earlier this year, the country enacted laws that make possession of up to two ounces a $5 civil citation and allow any household to grow up to five plants.
Mexico, once the largest supplier of marijuana to the United States and a country seriously plagued by drug violence, is reconsidering its tough stance on pot. The Mexican Supreme Court recently, in a 4–1 vote, declared that marijuana prohibition “violates the right to free development of one’s personality,” a major change in judicial tone and one that has many in that country seeing legalization as a viable alternative to current policies and another way to try and curb the power of the drug cartels.
And though it hasn’t officially enacted anything yet, Canada, under popular Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has said that it will soon legalize cannabis for adults.
Unlike the days when the eradication of drugs and the prosecution of drug offenders was the guiding purpose of the War on Drugs, the current problem is being seen more as a human-rights issue than one of criminal enforcement. Around the world, prisons are crowded with users and their suppliers, while government leaders watch as illegal drugs continue to flow across borders, providing enriching profits to those who control the market. Advocates say that decriminalization would ease scarce prison resources, free up courts for more serious matters, and bring cartel money into government channels in the form of taxes.
International cannabis policy is still governed by the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, convened in 1961 and later updated in 1971 and 1988 by the United Nations. The 1961 treaty added synthetic opioids created since the Paris Convention of 1931 and put cannabis on the list of drugs to be eliminated from the earth. In total, 185 countries, including all UN members, signed the Single Convention treaties—even the countries mentioned previously in this article.
The Single Convention was based around the popular notion that addiction “constitutes a serious evil for the individual” and a social and economic obstruction to mankind. The conclusion was to implement an approach that includes incarceration for users and dealers and, except for medical and scientific purposes, elimination of all illegal drug products. It’s interesting to note that the US has been one of the leading lights in that effort. The passage of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, with its various schedules for legal and illegal drugs, was, at least in part, to fulfill Single Convention obligations.
Which means that Colorado and other states that have legalized marijuana are in violation of those international treaties. This puts the federal government in the weird position of promoting prohibitionist treaties around the world while allowing its own states to legalize it for adults.
“It certainly skirts the line,” says Colorado State Rep. Jonathan Singer, a strong legislative supporter of Amendment 64.
“There is a strong argument that we are (in violation of the treaties),” Vicente admits. But, he adds, today it’s not just the United States. “I think a lot of states and countries have thrown their hands in the air and realized they need to move. Drug policy has always been built from the ground up. It’s been a movement of people. Smaller entities pass laws and make changes, and eventually it will filter it up to federal government.”
The treaties are fraying around the edges, enough that Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala called for a special session of the United Nations General Assembly in 2016, three years early, to revisit the realities of conforming to treaties that could be outdated. Though the sessions provided no actual action, the UN General Assembly is aware that criminalization is creating human-rights and public-health issues, and drug-related violence among the cartels is threatening countries more than drug use itself.
The UN has warned US states and countries changing their policies that they are in violation of international treaties. After initiatives in Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia passed and Canada announced its intent to legalize, UN International Narcotics Control Board President Lochan Naidoo warned that the legal obligation to prohibit narcotics and psychotropic substances “is absolute and leaves no room for interpretation.”
But in point of fact, the INCB has no binding authority to force countries to adhere strictly to the treaties. The US, for its part, continues to monitor legalization efforts in every state under specific guidelines to appease the spirit of the treaties. But as Vicente points out, the US treats treaties less honorably than perhaps it likes to believe. “I think the US takes international treaties with a grain of salt. If you look at our history, we don’t take them that seriously.”
“The United Nations has made some draconian statements,” adds Singer. “But ultimately Portugal and other countries are stopping prohibition.”
Singer gets regular inquiries from officials in other states and countries looking for information and advice about how legalization is working here. He says a lot of people he talks with are dragging their heels, standing on the sidelines waiting to see how things work out in Uruguay and American states.
“Everyone knows there’s an ambivalence in this wait-and-see attitude. We don’t know all the kinks that need to be hammered out,” Singer says. “That is a big takeaway. A lot of countries are sitting there playing the waiting game, asking, ‘Is this the next dot com boom or real-estate bust?’ European countries are not ready to make that jump. Most of them don’t have as robust a referendum process.”
That’s why they look to US states. “Colorado is the gold standard, or green standard, I suppose,” Singer says. “What fundamentally they find is that the sky hasn’t fallen, and that we have this boring, robust, and bureaucratic way to deal with a substance that was almost completely illegal before.”
If anything, he says, that’s the biggest surprise for most lawmakers. “A lot of the components are kind of mundane: seed-to-sale tracking, RFID tags, taxation levels, wholesale or retail. These are bureaucratic, commonplace things in the world of government. It takes cannabis out of the world of Escobar and into a world that’s less exciting. When I go to other places, I tell them to get ahead of this, get the nuances right, get ahead of your voters. Eventually they will see and elect people to make the right decisions,” says Singer.
All eyes are on Canada’s legalization efforts and California’s initiative on this month’s ballot. The Golden State would give 30 million-plus more American adults access to cannabis, and with Canada and Mexico, would begin to squeeze the US from the south, west, and north to consider changing its policies. “Once California legalizes, I think Mexico will, too. It would be an important move to align themselves with that,” says Vicente.
“California is a lynchpin. When it legalizes, which I believe it will, shock waves will reverberate nationally and internationally. It signals that legalization is the future and prohibition is the past.”