The War on Pot Is an Abject Failure … Now’s the Time for a New Approach
Calls for a new international framework for narcotics control are growing.
Practically overnight, faster than you can say “Depression 2.0”, a ballooning number of politicians, mainstream media journalists, and members of the public are acknowledging the fact that cannabis prohibition isn’t drug control it’s drug chaos.
In the U.S. — where 42 percent of the adult population has used cannabis — three-quarters of a million citizens are arrested every year for simple possession, draining limited resources from pressing issues like education, health care, and real “criminal justice”. South of the border, where cannabis comprises more than half of Mexico’s drug trafficking market, prohibitionist policies are fueling a grim and growing war that recently prompted the U.S. Joint Forces Command to warn that Mexico is in danger of becoming a failed state.
No wonder three-quarters of U.S. citizens think that the drug war is a failure, several states have introduced legislation this year to implement or expand decriminalization, and public support for outright marijuana legalization is polling higher than ever. Meanwhile, the crumbling economy has highlighted the monumental costs of cannabis enforcement, prosecution, and incarceration, not to mention the billions in potential taxes conceded to organized crime. (In a 2006 report, expert Jon Gettman used conservative estimates to value the annual U.S. cannabis crop at $36 billion — absurdly, more than corn and wheat combined.)
Abroad, the international community is also acknowledging the futility of U.S.-style prohibition as a model for global drug policy, and several countries have turned toward health-based approaches more in line with the U.N.s health and human rights mandates. Cannabis is subject to international control by the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, as amended in 1971, and it is also affected by the 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. Although signatories of the international drug control treaties are formally required to criminalize the production, distribution, sale, use and possession of cannabis, a number of countries — such as the Netherlands, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland, Denmark, Portugal, Austria and India — have adopted less punitive policies.
Yet, while the political viability of cannabis reform is reaching new found heights, there is a noticeable lack of consensus about the specific systems of regulation that could replace the current model.
Moving Beyond Stalemate
Enter the Global Cannabis Commission, an international team of leading public health policy experts (including Peter Reuter, Senior Economist at RAND) convened by the UK’s Beckley Foundation. The Commission’s Report and Draft Framework Convention on Cannabis Control map out solutions to break the current international stalemate, forming a blueprint for nations seeking to develop a more humane and effective approach to the control of cannabis. Among its recommendations, the Commission suggests reforming the international conventions to allow countries the leeway to implement differing systems of regulation that best suit their individual needs, even to the point of state production and licensed sale. The Commission identifies and analyzes potential routes forward — depenalization, decriminalization, partial legality, and, finally, a regulated legal market.
The Commission highlights aspects of international cannabis laws in need of revision and lays out ways in which countries can gain greater autonomy to pursue evidence-based cannabis policies. One way is for individual countries to denounce the international conventions and re-accede with a reservation on cannabis. Another way would be for a group of like-minded countries to negotiate and adopt a new convention specifically pertaining to cannabis — this option is explored in the Beckley Foundations new Draft Framework Convention on Cannabis Control.
Former President of Brazil Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who has endorsed the Report, said that, “The Report of the Global Cannabis Commission convened by the Beckley Foundation is a valuable contribution to our thinking on the thorny subject of illicit drugs … The failure of the ‘War on Drugs’ strategy is quite evident around the world, but the alternatives are not easy to grasp … New policies must be based on empirical data, not on ideological assumptions and dogmas.” Earlier this year, influenced by the Commission’s Report, Cardoso, along with the former Presidents of Mexico and Colombia and 17 delegates from nine Latin American nations, called for a “paradigm shift” in international drug policy that includes the decriminalization of cannabis. The Commission’s Report has also been endorsed by Jaswant Singh, leader of the opposition in the Indian Parliament’s Upper House, and Jan Wiarda, former chairman of European Police Chiefs.
Cannabis is the mainstay of the global War on Drugs. The U.N. has estimated that it is used regularly by 166 million people — 4 percent of the global adult population, compared to 1 percent for all other illegal drugs combined. Under current international norms, anyone who possesses an illegal drug such as cannabis is treated as a serious criminal — subject to the possibility of arrest, property seizure, imprisonment, denial of access to public benefits (such as financial aid for college or welfare), loss of child custody, and employment discrimination.
As documented in the Report, there is no evidence that more rigorous enforcement has a significant deterrent effect, although there is extensive evidence that such enforcement causes considerable harms to those arrested and their communities. Nor is there evidence that a less punitive approach to cannabis control leads to any increase in the use of cannabis. Furthermore, although cannabis is more commonly traded within social networks than other illegal drugs, there are still illegal markets worth tens of billions of dollars to
organized crime that sustain significant levels of violence in many countries.
Almost fifty years after the adoption of an unequivocal international prohibition on cannabis in the 1961 Single Convention, we face a very different world. Yet, the U.N. Conventions restrict the ability of signatory countries to adapt to these changed circumstances and adopt more appropriate cannabis policies. They also restrict the accumulation of new evidence to inform the development of new evidence-based systems of control. While in principle these Conventions can be amended, this is not a practical possibility at the present time.
The alternative, which is explored in the Commission’s Draft Framework on Cannabis Control, is to adopt a new convention, which could be modeled on the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. This treaty, which was adopted in 2003 and came into force in 2005, was the first to be negotiated under WHO auspices.
The Time Is Now
The work of the Global Cannabis Commission is a compelling resource for the development of evidence-based cannabis policies and provides a model for reformers and policymakers to challenge the basic premises of marijuana prohibition.
Today’s drug chaos is the inevitable result of prohibition. Cannabis has been easily produced around the world for thousands of years, making its eradication effectively impossible. Prohibition entails the opposite of drug control by completely abdicating regulation to the black market — as the Commission puts it, “That which is prohibited cannot be easily regulated.”
The tobacco example underscores the fact that drug regulation is not a step into the unknown — we have centuries of experience in legally regulating thousands of different drugs. In fact, tobacco use has declined dramatically in the U.S. over the past generation without using the criminal justice system to punish tobacco users.
If ever there were a time for political leaders, in the U.S. and abroad, to engage in an honest and open review of cannabis prohibition, it is now. In one of this year’s most promising developments, U.S. Senators Jim Webb (D-VA) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) have introduced a bill to create a commission that would undertake an 18-month study of the criminal justice system and make legislative recommendations — and an overhaul of cannabis laws will be on the table. Meanwhile, in Mexico, growing appetite for reform prompted the Mexican Congress to convene a three-day debate on the decriminalization and regulation of cannabis earlier this month.
In contrast, President Obama appears a little caught off-guard by the public’s appetite for marijuana reform. When recently forced to address the subject of marijuana legalization, he laughed it off but curiously offered no arguments to defend his position.
Let’s make sure our policy makers know that they can no longer evade the basic truth that the prohibition of cannabis causes more harm than the plant itself — and that any marijuana control policy that intends to protect children, families, and communities must include sensible regulation.
Jag Davies is U.S. public policy coordinator at the Beckley Foundation.
Former MAPS’ Communication Director Jag Davies, now Beckley Foundation U.S. Public Policy Coordinator, probes the foundations proposals for international marijuana law reform.