Why A UN Official’s Threats Shouldn’t Blunt Uruguay’s New Marijuana Law

CREDIT: Associated Press

Supporters of marijuana legalization outside the Uruguay Capitol as the Senate voted to legalize marijuana.

A United Nations official charged with overseeing international drug law compliance didn’t waste any time in issuing a public rebuke of Uruguay for passing a law late Tuesday to legalize marijuana.

International Narcotics Control Board President Raymond Yans charged that the first-of-its-kind law to regulate the growth, distribution, and sale of marijuana is a blatant violation of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, to which Uruguay is a party. Under the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, marijuana is listed as a “Schedule I” drug, meaning states are tasked with implementing a system for limiting usage of the drug to medical and scientific purposes.

In a press release published on the United Nations website Wednesday, Yans said he was “surprised that a legislative body that has endorsed an international law and agreements, and a Government that is an active partner in international cooperation and in the maintenance of the international rule of law, knowingly decided to break the universally agreed and internationally endorsed legal provisions of the treaty.”

The warning isn’t new for Yans. He issued a similar rebuke when Colorado and Washington passed their legalization measures, although he didn’t go so far as to say the state actions were an outright violation. And he warned Canada not to halt its “safe injection sites” program. Both programs have expanded in spite of the warnings.

Like many international treaties, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs does not have any strong enforcement mechanisms. And even Yans’ harshly worded press release concludes only that “INCB reiterates its call to the Government of Uruguay to engage with the Board with a view to ensure that Uruguay continues to respect and implement the treaties to which it is a Party.” So Uruguay could do nothing at all without much fear of repercussions for its alleged violation.

But it also has another option. Bolivia paved the way for carving out exceptions to the drug treaty in February, when it left the convention and followed procedures for rejoining with a reservation for the coca leaf, which is traditionally chewed by indigenous Indian tribes. Drug policy scholar Mark Kleiman has suggested that countries wanting to legalize marijuana could follow the same route.

In the longer term, the international treaty may be revisited in just a few years, when the United Nations will hold a global summit to reconsider drug policy. A draft document leaked to the Guardian on future international policy reveals interest by many world leaders in experimenting with legalization and regulation as an alternative to the failed War on Drugs. Many Latin American leaders and former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan have already publicly stated their support for alternatives to criminalization.

Critics of the 50-year-old treaty have argued it should be reinterpreted because drug criminalization has not proved an effective means of achieving the treaty’s aim: improving the “health and welfare of mankind.” The Global Initiative for Drug Policy Reform has pointed out that it was only after the treaty’s passage in 1961 that large-scale illegal production of drugs developed, with all its accompanying violence and misdirected profit. “[T]he measures of success which have been used in the ‘war on drugs’ approach have been the number of arrests, size of the seizures or severity of prison sentences. … ‘these indicators may tell us how tough we are being, but they don’t tell us how successful we are in improving the health and welfare of mankind’,” the organization wrote.