As the world prepares for the 2016 Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS 2016), an increasing number of countries around the world now find the regime’s emphasis on punitive approaches to illicit drugs to be problematic and are asking for reform. In this moment of global disagreement, the Brookings project on Improving Global Drug Policy provides a unique comparative evaluation of the effectiveness and costs of international counternarcotics policies and best approaches to reform.
Some countries have adopted drug treatment courts as a way to reduce drug-related incarceration. Drug treatment courts, also called “drug courts,” are meant to offer court-supervised treatment for drug dependence for some persons who would otherwise go to prison for a drug-related offense.
Across the Americas, an unprecedented debate on drug policy reform is underway. While a regional consensus on what form those reforms should take remains elusive, there are at least two issues where consensus is growing: the need to address drug use as a public health, rather than criminal, issue and the need to promote alternatives to incarceration for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders and ensure proportionality in sentencing for drug-related crimes. Draconian drug laws were often adopted in Latin American countries with the encouragement – if not outright diplomatic, political and economic pressure – from the U.S. government.
These are interesting times for drug law reform, which, as it gathers pace, is asking important questions of international law. A UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs is set for 2016 just as national reforms are challenging international treaties that form the bedrock of a global prohibition regime that has dominated since the turn of the twentieth century. States parties to the three UN drug control conventions must now confront the legal and political dilemmas this creates. This is the situation in which the US now finds itself following cannabis reforms in various states that are at odds with these treaties.
In 2012, voters in the US states of Washington, Colorado and Oregon were given the opportunity to vote in ballot initiatives for the creation of legally regulated cannabis markets. Washington’s Initiative 502 and Colorado’s Amendment 64 both passed with 55.7% and 55.3% of the vote respectively. Oregon’s Measure 80 failed with 53.4% of those voting rejecting the measure. As calls for and legal processes towards the initiation of cannabis policy reform become more common within US states, it is a timely and useful exercise to reflect upon the campaigns for reform in Washington (WA), Colorado (CO) and Oregon (OR) and examine why the public supported cannabis policy reform in some instances and not others.
An October statement on drug control from the US State Department has prompted much comment and speculation at home and abroad. Delivered by Ambassador William Brownfield, the ‘Brownfield Doctrine’, as it has been named by some commentators, lays out a four pillar approach the United States will follow in matters of international drug control.
State-level cannabis reforms, which gathered steam this month, have exposed the inability of the United States to abide by the terms of the legal bedrock of the global drug control system; the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. This is something that should force a much-needed conversation about reform to long- standing international agreements. But while ostensibly 'welcoming' the international drug policy reform debate, it is a conversation the US federal government actually wishes to avoid.
Suppose the United States government helps to negotiate, and subsequently champions, certain framework treaties – ones justly viewed as imposing significant constraints on all signatories. Down the road, the United States occasionally even calls out counterparties for their looser policy innovations, when the latter push the outer boundaries of what’s permitted under the treaties; a treaty-created monitoring body does likewise in its annual reporting. This pattern essentially holds year in and year out and from one presidential administration to the next.
For decades, the United States has been a champion of the global drug control treaty system, which limits the use of marijuana exclusively to medical and scientific purposes, and obligates governments to punish and even criminalize recreational marijuana activity. But American attitudes toward marijuana policy are shifting: voters in Colorado and Washington approved ballot initiatives to legalize regulated recreational marijuana in 2012, and recent polls suggest that the majority of Americans think marijuana use should be legalized.
Two U.S. states have legalized recreational marijuana, and more may follow; the Obama administration has conditionally accepted these experiments. Such actions are in obvious tension with three international treaties that together commit the United States to punish and even criminalize activity related to recreational marijuana. The administration asserts that its policy complies with the treaties because they leave room for flexibility and prosecutorial discretion.
The dynamics of reform in the Americas continues. This time, the momentum comes from the Caribbean region. Jamaica and other Caribbean Community (CARICOM) member states are now moving to change their marijuana laws. Among the proposed changes discussed in Jamaica were the decriminalisation of possession of small amounts of ganja for recreational and religious use and cultivating it for medicinal purposes.
Latin America is now at the vanguard of international efforts to promote drug policy reform: Bolivia has rewritten its constitution to recognize the right to use the coca leaf for traditional and legal purposes, Uruguay has become the first nation in the world to adopt a legal, regulated Cannabis market, and Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, and Ecuador are openly critiquing the prevailing international drug control paradigm at the UN. And now with the United States itself relaxing its marijuana laws state by state, the U.S. prohibitionist drug war strategies are losing credibility in the region.
Drug courts have spread across the country, yet available research does not support their continued expansion. Most drug courts do not reduce imprisonment, do not save money or improve public safety, and fail to help those struggling with drug problems. The drug court model must be corrected to play a more effective role in improving the wellbeing of people involved in the criminal justice system who suffer substance misuse problems – while preserving scarce public safety resources.
Graham Boyd, Sarah Trumble, Lanae Erickson Hatalsky
11 April 2014
Despite a federal prohibition on marijuana possession, sale, and use, Colorado and Washington recently became the first states to enact laws legalizing the recreational use of this drug. Although the Obama Administration has taken steps to attempt to deal with this evolving situation, we believe the status quo is untenable and Congress must act to provide certainty and a framework for these states moving forward. This report explains the problem and offers a solution.
Beau Kilmer, Kristy Kruithof, Mafalda Pardal, Jonathan P. Caulkins, Jennifer Rubin
14 December 2013
This RAND report provides an overview of the changes to laws and policies pertaining to cannabis in different countries. Several jurisdictions have reduced the penalties for possessing cannabis for personal use (and in some places even for home cultivation), while some jurisdictions have taken more dramatic steps and changed their laws and practices with respect to producing and distributing cannabis.
Emily Crick, Heather J. Haase, David Bewley-Taylor
14 November 2013
In November 2012, voters in two US states – Washington and Colorado – approved ballot initiatives to establish legally regulated markets for the production, sale, use and taxation of cannabis (commonly referred to in the US as marijuana). This is the first time anywhere in the world that the recreational use of the drug will be legally regulated – the wellknown coffee shop system in the Netherlands is merely tolerated rather than enshrined in law. Needless to say, with implications both within and beyond US borders, the drug policy community is watching Colorado and Washington closely.
At the root of the drug policy debate in Latin America is growing recognition that present policies have failed to achieve the desired objectives, the extremely high costs of implementing those policies paid by Latin American countries, and the need to place higher priority on reducing unacceptably high levels of violence. Of particular concern is the spread of organized crime and the resulting violence, corruption and erosion of democratic institutions.
Latin America has emerged at the vanguard of efforts to promote debate on drug policy reform. For decades, Latin American governments largely followed the drug control policies and programs of Washington’s so-called war on drugs. Yet two parallel trends have resulted in a dramatic change in course: the emergence of left-wing governments that have challenged Washington’s historic patterns of unilateralism and interventionism and growing frustration with the failure of the prohibitionist drug control model put forward by the US government.
Bolivia will again belong to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs after its bid to rejoin with a reservation that it does not accept the treaty’s requirement that “coca leaf chewing must be banned” was successful Friday. Opponents needed one-third of the 184 signatory countries to object, but fell far, far short despite objections by the US and the International Narcotics Control Board.
Today the Plurinational State of Bolivia can celebrate a rightful victory, as the country can become formally a party again to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, but without being bound by its unjust and unrealistic requirement that “coca leaf chewing must be abolished.” This represents the successful conclusion of an arduous process in which Bolivia has sought to reconcile its international treaty obligations with its 2009 Constitution, which obliges upholding the coca leaf as part of Bolivia’s cultural patrimony.