Will The World's Great Powers Finally Realize The War On Drugs Is A Failure?

Any skeptical reader with even a rudimentary understanding of global drug control politics could be excused for wondering why so many commentators consider the upcoming United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Narcotic Drugs (UNGASS) to be a very, very big deal.

The international meeting, scheduled for 4/20 weekend in New York, will bring together the world's governments to review global drug control for the first time since 2009. Will the world's great powers finally recognize what practically everyone already knows – that the war on drugs is a dismal failure?

China, Russia Won't Back Down

Will they finally agree to replace the creaky Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, ratified over 50 years ago at the height of drug hysteria, with a new treaty – one based on science not moralism, on pragmatic concerns of reducing harms instead of the ideological pipe dream of a "world without drugs"?

Not a chance. Putin's Russia, clinging stubbornly to Cold War-era rhetoric, is as perniciously doubling down on its own corner of the drug war as it is against the global narrative of LGBT rights. China, resolutely ignoring its own 4,000-year history as a pioneer of medical marijuana science, is only slightly behind.

Either of these delegations holds the power, through their permanent seats on the powerful Security Council, to veto any reform to existing global drug treaties. Any proposal for a new drug control treaty is DOA, even before UNGASS's opening remarks have been uttered.

UN meeting bigger than Trudeau win, U.S. ballot initiatives

Nonetheless, the upcoming meeting IS a very, very big deal. Never mind the raft of new legalization proposals in U.S. states; never mind the election of Justin Trudeau – this is, by far, the biggest drug reform story of the year. And there's no greater proof of this than the new report on the Single Convention by the London School of Economics (LSE), which by its mere existence consigns the global drug war to the rubbish bin of history, where it belonged all along.

A little background here. The Single Convention derives its name from historical precedent: before its ratification in 1964 (the U.S. held out until 1967, for reasons explained below), the global drug control regime was a mess – a spaghetti-like web of treaties which dealt with the many complex aspects of the global drug trade in piecemeal fashion.

Yet for all the confusion, the treaties shared two all-important aspects in common: rather than mandating hard-line, militaristic drug controls, they instead required much softer accountability mechanisms based largely on self-reporting production and consumption numbers to the League of Nations (later, the UN); and even more significantly, they drew sharp distinctions between controlled "illicit" use of drugs and the use of the same drugs for "medical and scientific purposes" – a recognition that opium, for example, could be used either as a medicine (as it was, largely in tea form, in China before the Opium Wars) or as a dangerous habit (as it was, almost exclusively in smoked form, in China after the Opium Wars).

Yet even this distinction created a fundamental problem, since the terms "medical" and "scientific" do not necessarily hold the same meaning across cultures – the indigenous of Peru, for example, chew raw coca leaves to combat altitude sickness, whereas European societies stubbornly maintained that cocaine was only a medicine if employed as an extract.

The Single Convention largely incorporated this pre-existing policy by its terms – equivocal warts and all. The United States initially balked, regarding the treaty as too weak and refusing to ratify it. Yet eventually they did anyway, and the Single Convention, with two relatively minor revisions subsequent, is still in force today.

Nixon launches War on Drugs

Critically, it was only after this ratification that President Nixon, four years later, pushed for a global War on Drugs as a new and especially harsh interpretation of the Single Convention. Nothing in the treaty required Nixon to go so far; as an example, even though the Convention clearly provides an exception for the medical use and scientific study of cannabis, he personally saw to it that the plant was placed in Schedule I of his Controlled Substances Act, which forbids any medical use and even makes it practically impossible to conduct any scientific study of its potential benefits.

Undeterred by such inconvenient truths, the U.S. state department has since exerted unilateral pressure on the other signatories of the treaty to take the same hard line, with tactics ranging from polite diplomacy to savage, hypocritical meddling (see, e.g., the Iran-Contra affair).

The LSE report demolishes this militaristic interpretation with extreme prejudice. After recounting the history behind the Single Convention (demonstrating beyond any doubt the optional nature of the War on Drugs reading), the report goes on to put the final nail in the drug war coffin with a rhetorical tour de force.

The 'laboratories of democracy' for cannabis reform

The critical 2nd chapter, a simply brilliant examination by Francisco Thoumi, zooms in on the word "scientific" to demonstrate that the term, far from mandating a strictly "hard science" approach like the medical heuristic universally followed today, is actually more appropriately read as permitting research not only into medical science but political science as well, in an interpretation which harkens to the famous words of Justice Louis Brandeis, describing the 50 U.S. states as "laboratories of democracy" which aid policymakers in finding ideal regulations through a scientific dialectic.

By this metric, the one nation more in compliance with the cannabis policy of the Single Convention than any other is (ironically) the United States, where various states are experimenting with a diverse range of policies from the noncommercial distribution model of Washington, D.C. to the tightly-regulated, heavily-taxed for-profit system of Washington state. This opens the door for ravaged Latin American countries to experiment with reforms while staying in good faith compliance with existing international law – no new treaty required.

U.N.'s only has the power of public scolding

None of this would fly, of course, if the argument were advanced in the U.S. Congress. But the drug policy arm of the UN, crucially, has no enforcement power greater than public scolding – as the bold actions of Bolivia to legalize the indigenous use of coca proved twenty years ago.

The Russian, Chinese and even American delegation can bring as much anxious hand-wringing to UNGASS as they want, but if states like Uruguay walk away from the new (non)consensus with a declaration that their cannabis legalization programs are in compliance with existing treaties, the UN is powerless to repudiate them.


Jeremy Daw is the editor of the cannabis legalization news and analysis web site,TheLeafOnline.com. He is also the co-author (with Chris Conrad) of The Newbie's Guide to Cannabis and the Industry, available this spring from Reset.me, an imprint of Whitman Books. This is Jeremy Daw's third piece for Civilized. His first one focused on the California ballot initiative sponsored by Sean Parker. His second piece focused on another California ballot initiative put forward by Americans for Policy Reform.


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