Aspects of Drug Wars Undercovered
big news in drug reform circles this week is the Supreme Courtís
decision that there is no "medical necessity" exception
to federal prohibition of marijuana distribution or manufacture
that can be claimed by the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative.
The court did not overturn Californiaís law allowing patients with
a recommendation from a licensed physician to use, possess and cultivate
cannabis, or the similar laws passed by initiative (and by legislative
action in Hawaii) in other states, but it does highlight the complex
relationships of various levels of government.
is important for those seeking reform to be aware that interrelationships
among various governmental bodies can make reform efforts more complicated
than they might otherwise be. And it is not quite enough for the
people of a state to pass a medical-marijuana law to get a system
to serve patients in place indeed, as my new book, Waiting
to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (available here)
details, getting enough political support for a reform to have it
passed can be only the beginning of a complex and confusing process
that is still far from over. And then thereís the federal government
with its own attitude and agenda.
a similar fashion, countries that want to diverge from the chosen
path of prohibitionism when it comes to dealing with certain drugs
can find that international organizations, international treaties,
international conventions and international pressure can have a
powerful impact on their desire to explore options other than punishment
and imprisonment. Itís becoming a growing problem as an increasing
number of countries try to find alternatives to the strict prohibitionism
many view as a twisted spawn of American puritanism.
main international treaty governing drugs policy is the UN Single
Convention, ratified in 1961, which binds signatories to have an
essentially prohibitory policy toward certain drugs, especially
marijuana and heroin. When it was ratified, then-head of the US
Bureau of Narcotics Harry Anslinger, the duplicitous father of marijuana
prohibition policies, crowed that it meant marijuana could never
be legalized, because any country that even thought about doing
so would be in violation of a solemn treaty obligation. And, indeed,
at various times during the ongoing debate over drug policy, American
prohibitionists have cited the treaty as one of the many reasons
the United States canít even think about anything other than strict
prohibitionism as an approach to supposedly dangerous drugs.
those debates there was seldom a realistic likelihood that the United
States would actually revise its drug laws in a way that might run
afoul of the Single Convention. But of late various governments,
especially in Europe, have pursued slightly different policies toward
drugs and the harms they can cause in a society.
people are aware that cannabis and the refined form called hashish
can be purchased openly in Amsterdam, through "coffee shops"
that sell small amounts to almost any comer. While the trade is
open and openly tolerated, however, the Dutch government has not
actually changed its marijuana laws, it has simply chosen to ignore
them in certain ways. The results are generally beneficent: marijuana
use by teenagers in Holland is lower than it is in the United States,
and while the "coffee shops" are associated with certain
low-level enforcement and disturbance problems, they are generally
operated so as to minimize disturbances and problems for neighbors.
Dutch government officials are generally pleased with their policies
and willing to defend them against falsehoods from such as former
U.S. "drug czar" Barry McCaffrey, however, the laws havenít
actually been changed, in large part due to the Single Convention.
So Holland is left pursuing a policy its leaders believe to be beneficial,
but which is to some extent a lie in that it isnít formalized in
the laws of the country. Itís more that a little Alice-in-Wonderlandish.
FACTO BUT NOT DE JURE
other countries are working out different approaches to potentially
dangerous, addictive or demonized drugs, but operating under similar
legal constraints. Thus Great Britain has at various times operated
heroin maintenance or methadone clinics. Switzerland in recent years
has virtually legalized marijuana, allowing not just use and sales
but also cultivation. Belgium is on the verge of decriminalizing
possession and cultivation for personal use. Germany, led by resolutions
from various cities, has more tolerant policies in practice, though
not in law, than the United States. Italy and Spain have flirted
with de facto legalization of marijuana.
of these countries have been held back from open legalization or
full decriminalization by the Single Convention which means in practice
they have been held back by the United States, which turns out to
be the only country that cares enough about prohibition to issue
veiled threats and subtle reminders whenever some other country
threatens to stray from the prohibition reservation.
the collapse of the Soviet Union most European countries placed
too much value on their relationship with the United States to make
a big deal out of something so peripheral as drug policy or Vietnam,
to cite an earlier war most European countries opposed but went
along with. But the collapse of the Soviet Union has coincided with
economic growth and an increasing sense if independence on the part
of European Union countries.
a fascinating story that has hardly been reported at all in the
US press, Canada is on the verge of developing a comprehensive plan
to allow and perhaps even to distribute marijuana to patients whose
doctors recommend that they use it. This came about because last
July the Canadian Supreme Court, hearing a case brought by a medical
marijuana patient, looked beyond the words of the laws to the scientific
evidence and the many anecdotes about unique relief offered to some
patients by cannabis.
Canadian high court then ruled that by denying Canadian patients
the ability to try a medicine that just might relieve some of their
pain or suffering with minimal side effects, the Canadian government
was denying them fundamental rights guaranteed by the Canadian constitution.
It told the government, in effect, that it had a year to come up
with a system to authorize the medicinal use of cannabis, or it
would invalidate all the anti-marijuana-user laws.
so, Canadian officials have expressed concern about whether they
might find themselves in violation of international conventions
on drug policy. But conditions around the world are changing in
ways that might make this argument not only less compelling, but
a few developments. The Europeans are talking about a continental
defense force independent of NATO, though one wonders if it will
ever be much more than just talk. While most Eurocrats supported
the Kosovo bombing campaign, some had and expressed reservations,
especially the French.
for Plan Colombia, which most Europeans find ill-advised or foolish.
the 1990s differences between the United States and its European
"allies" were muted because of the general level of comfort
on the part of most Europeans with the Clinton administration. But
Bush the Younger is viewed with less tolerance than his old man
or even Clinton. Despite some early hopes that his administration
might be less intensively globally engaged than previous American
administrations, he shows every evidence not only of supporting
Plan Colombia but of being prepared to escalate American involvement
beyond anything the Clinton administration had in mind.
is not simply an unfortunate development in some faraway part of
the world that the European and Canadian governments can effectively
ignore even as they tut-tut about its unwisdom. They are being asked
to contribute money and materiel. And for the most part they have
much less confidence in the Bush administration to keep matters
from surging out of control than they had in Clinton if only because
Clinton was so thoroughly cynical that he would not allow US involvement
to expand to the point that a lot of embarrassing body bags started
the United States under the new administration has changed the climate
regarding treaties. It has all but declared the Kyoto treaty on
global warming a dead letter, a convention the United States does
not feel obligated to honor. And in its eagerness to build an anti-missile
defense system it has spoken openly of abrogating or invalidating
the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, which seems to forbid the
US from building such a system.
the purposes of this argument, it doesnít matter whether these decisions
are good, bad or indifferent (I happen to think both are eminently
defensible, though in the case of Kyoto not necessary since anyone
in touch with reality knows it is never going to take full effect
and probably was never intended as much more than a symbolic gesture).
The important thing is that the United States is publicly criticizing
and threatening to abrogate unilaterally a couple of solemn treaties.
United States is saying that treaties are not necessarily forever,
that conditions and circumstances may change in ways that make new
arrangements or the abrogation of old commitments at least desirable
if not absolutely necessary. This isnít an indefensible position
by any means, and in some ways it is a thoroughly healthy attitude.
with Kyoto and ABM in the background, the United States is not going
to have a lot of credibility when it tries to tell Europe and Canada
that they canít change their domestic drug policies because they
have solemn treaty obligations to keep waging the Holy War on Drugs.
UP WITH UNILATERALISM?
all this as background, perhaps it is not surprising to find further
evidence of exasperation with the US sanctimony surfacing more quickly
than some of us had expected. Last week the United States was not
voted onto the UN Human Rights Commission. This was hardly a mark
of dishonor, given that the seat went to Sudan, one of the worldís
more brutal tyrannies.
was hardly reported at all, however, that during the same UN session
the US lost its seat on the 13-member International Narcotics Control
Board, the body that supposedly monitors compliance with UN "drug
conventions." In practice it has largely been a prohibitionist
propaganda outfit largely controlled by the US Drug Enforcement
the seven countries elected to the board, Iran, Brazil, India, Peru,
France, the Netherlands and Austria, at least four are openly moving
away from strict marijuana prohibition. Their presence and the US
absence from this board could actually have the impact of slowing
down the US push to create a global police state, ostensibly to
fight the war on drugs.
Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey called the development "a great loss
to the international community to not have us in a leadership position
Ö The assistance that we are able to provide the United Nations,
the Europeans and former Soviet Union states could be adversely
McCaffrey knows this is a major blow to the U.S.-led international
war on drugs, but can think of nothing more effective than blustering
threats to cut off aid to counter it
would hardly be accurate to contend that because of these developments
international treaties that support international prohibitionism
are likely to be repealed or abrogated. Many of the countries still
on the INCB are ardently prohibitionist. The bureaucracies that
made their spurs promoting prohibitionist propaganda and resisting
or denouncing any hint of reform.
with the United States, the Vatican of Prohibitionism, no longer
on the board, the agency will no longer be a slavish servant of
the DEA. Countries that support various reforms might even make
their impact felt on the international body.
Cowan, proprietor of the useful Web site marijuananews.com,
has written that "prohibitionism is a global ideology, like
Communism, and deviation from the party line is a moral threat.
Second, if another country develops successful drugs policies that
deviate from prohibitionism the prohibitionist paradigm could be
shattered. After all, pragmatism is an American philosophy. Prohibitionism
is not just morally superior; it is the only possible policy. Anything
else would have to be a disaster. That is why the DEA and Drug czar
has to lie about the success of Dutch cannabis policies."
Cowan might be a tad too optimistic. But attitudes toward drug policy
are changing, not just in the United States, where the people are
years ahead of the politicians, but around the world.
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