The Drug Enforcement Administration is hiding behind international law to avoid addressing the need for marijuana reform.

On Aug. 11, DEA chief Chuck Rosenberg frustrated cannabis advocates by announcing that the Obama Administration had denied requests to change cannabis from a Schedule I to a Schedule II drug in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). That move could have opened the door for marijuana to be officially recognized as medicine. Instead, the DEA maintains that cannabis has no medical value and is as dangerous as heroin - another Schedule I substance.

In a letter explaining the DEA's position, Rosenberg said that the administration would consider re-scheduling cannabis in the future. But it could only go so far because of international law. He wrote, "it should also be noted that, in view of United States obligations under international drug control treaties, marijuana cannot be placed in a schedule less restrictive than schedule II.”

That's bad news for legalization activists. The CSA defines Schedule II drugs (e.g. methamphetamine, methadone and cocaine) as dangerous substances "with a high potential for abuse, [and] with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence." That means patients would still have a tough time getting their hands on medical cannabis. And recreational use would remain illegal federally. 

Basically, if Rosenberg's right and international law prevents America from going any further with marijuana reform, then federal cannabis prohibition is here to stay.

International drug treaties

But there is a problem with Rosenberg's argument. America is already breaking those treaties. By allowing Colorado and other legal states to operate recreational marijuana markets, the United States has failed to uphold those international laws, and the United Nations didn't mince words about that when releasing its 2016 World Drug Report.

Rosenberg is referring to three United Nations treaties that uphold international cannabis prohibition. By signing onto these, America agreed to prohibit access to marijuana except for medical use and for research. That means the United States can't legalize recreational marijuana without breaking international law. "The Board [of Trustees] reiterates its concern that action by the [American] Government to date with regard to the legalization of the production, sale and distribution of cannabis for non-medical and non-scientific purposes in the states of Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington does not meet the requirements of the international drug control treaties. In particular, the 1961 Convention as amended, establishes that the parties to the Convention should take such legislative and administrative measures as may be necessary 'to limit exclusively to medical and scientific purposes the production, manufacture, export, import, distribution of, trade in, use and possession of drugs'. This provision is strictly binding and not subject to flexible interpretation."

The DEA claims America can't legalize marijuana because of international law, but the government has been breaking international law ever since the Obama Administration issued memos preventing the Department of Justice - which oversees the DEA - from prosecuting state-legalized marijuana markets.

And America isn't the only country failing to uphold these conventions. Uruguay broke them by legalizing recreational marijuana in 2013. Right now, Canada is in the process of breaking them after pledging to introduce a legalization bill in 2017. Mexico might not be far behind.

Meanwhile, America is letting other countries take the lead on marijuana reform instead of taking on the issue as a world leader.

Standoff with Clinton?

The DEA's shaky position could also lead to a showdown with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, whose campaign criticized Rosenberg's claim that marijuana had "no accepted medical use in the United States." 

“Marijuana is already being used for medical purposes in states across the country, and it has the potential for even further medical use,” Maya Harris - a senior policy advisor to Clinton’s campaign - said according to The Denver Post. “As Hillary Clinton has said throughout this campaign, we should make it easier to study marijuana so that we can better understand its potential benefits, as well as its side effects."

And the former secretary of state would go beyond re-scheduling, according to Harris.

"She [Hillary] will also ensure Colorado, and other states that have enacted marijuana laws, can continue to serve as laboratories of democracy,” meaning that the Clinton Administration would allow more states to break international law by repealing marijuana prohibition. Allowing jurisdictions to experiment with cannabis reform could become part of the "pathway to future legalization" that the Democratic Party promised in their 2016 platform.

If that happens, the DEA will have to choose between following the Clinton Administration's lead and de-scheduling cannabis, or continuing to drag their feet by making bureaucratic arguments about international law.