Europe, in general, is less concerned with religion and the personal morality of others (pre-marital sex, adultery) than the United States, according to a Pew Research Center poll. So why is cannabis legalisation facing a more difficult time in Europe than in the US? Perhaps because they also trust the government more and cannot petition to overturn or change unpopular laws as they can in the US.
An unasked question is whether governments or the people can or should violate international agreements – such as the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which prohibits non-medical sales of marijuana – unilaterally, and what the consequences might be. We may soon find out. Canada is poised to start selling recreational marijuana on July 1, and Uruguay already has.
A Right to Marijuana?
While the US government hasn’t legalised marijuana, approximately 30 of its 50 US states – plus Washington, DC – have legalised putatively medical marijuana, and eight also have legal recreational marijuana. Almost all won those rights not through the local legislative process but instead by a voter referendum. Most European citizens don’t have that power, perhaps because they aren’t as suspicious of the government as the US, or aren’t as fanatic about personal liberty and responsibility as the government taking care of them. Free speech (it’s much harder to be convicted of libel in the US), the right to own and bear arms, and even resistance to universal healthcare are examples of this US mindset.
This mindset also means that change in the US usually begins at the local state level. That’s why the late US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously referred to the states as ”laboratories of democracy” in 1932. Sometimes state laws become federal laws by a decision of the Supreme Court, such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
Marijuana Harms Vs. Benefits
In the US federal law still prohibits all uses of marijuana, medical or not, because of marijuana’s inclusion on Schedule 1 of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. That means it is officially considered highly addictive, unsafe for any use and with no medical benefits. Marijuana is similarly included in the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.
That is stuff and nonsense. At the very least cannabis is safer and less addictive than many legal drugs, including alcohol and the prescription drugs driving the opioid epidemic. Unlike those deadly but legal substances, no one has ever overdosed on marijuana, and it is arguable whether or not it is physically addictive.
In Texas, though half of the US Drug Enforcement Agency offices consider marijuana the number one threat, it had zero associated overdose deaths. The drug that the other half name, methamphetamine, had 715 deaths attributed to it in 2016 alone, so it’s clear which rehab centres in Texas should be most concerned about.
Cannabis also has demonstrated anecdotal health benefits for many conditions, including chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even opioid addiction. Its very illegality makes accumulating rigorous scientific evidence, or even getting approval for such studies, almost impossible.
Marijuana’s probable benefits (versus its low risk) are why so many US states have legalised medical marijuana, despite its illicit nature. That the US so widely violates those treaties in regard to marijuana (as well as federal law) seems ironic since many believe marijuana is included in the treaties largely because the US government wanted it there.
US Government Still Opposes Marijuana
Apparently, it still does. US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a legalisation opponent, has made threatening noises about enforcing the federal marijuana laws for months. In early January he rescinded two memos that had encouraged federal law enforcement to defer to state law so long as certain guidelines were met (no access to minors, no shipping across state lines, etc.).
Even in the face of Sessions chomping at the bit to enforce federal marijuana laws, more states are considering legalisation. Missouri, Oklahoma and Utah could pass medical marijuana laws this year, and Michigan and New Jersey seem almost certain to passrecreational laws.
Certainly, the tax revenue derived from marijuana sales is one draw. Colorado, the first state to enact recreational marijuana laws, reported $193.6m in tax and fee revenue from marijuana in 2016. California, which began recreational sales this month, anticipates at least $1bn in tax revenue annually.
Some opponents, without much evidence, claim the costs of legalisation will mostly cancel out these revenues, but most studies find little or no change. Maybe more people will seek treatment at luxury rehabs in California.
At least one item still dissuading Sessions from following through on his threats is the Rohrabacher–Farr Amendment, which prohibits the Justice Department from spending funds to enforce federal marijuana laws in states that have legalised it. It is part of the budget resolution that the Congress keeps kicking down the road, most recently to January 19 (and they may kick it again). Sessions wants Congress to remove it.
Justin Strekal, political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), says that wouldn’t end marijuana use in those states, merely return it to the black market, which could put $7bn back into the hands of drug cartels.
Barriers to Legalisation Remain
Those three international drug treaties might be the most significant barrier to total marijuana legalisation in the US and elsewhere. Even if the US Congress chooses to change the law to make marijuana legal, or the executive branch removes marijuana from Schedule 1 (either by moving it to another, less restrictive schedule or deleting it altogether), those treaties still stand. Changing them would require an international effort and cooperation.
Violating the terms unilaterally might encourage other governments to act similarly, maybe with more harmful drugs such as heroin. The US is arguably the biggest supporter of these treaties. If it doesn’t comply with them, even in the narrow case of marijuana, the door will be open to other exceptions. (The Single Convention already has granted a major exemption to Bolivia for its tradition of chewing coca leaves, from which cocaine is derived, in 2013.)
On the other hand, Uruguay made marijuana completely legal to its citizens on July 19, 2017, and it is also a signatory to the Single Convention on Narcotics, but the sky hasn’t fallen yet (though it and the US have been under United Nations investigation since at least 2015).
Even if the US does nothing, maintaining the status quo, the effects of such a treaty violation may be felt when Canada’s legalisation law goes into effect later this year. The federal government in Ottawa says the provinces will receive 75% of tax revenues derived from cannabis sales, expected to be between $400m and $1bn annually.
Treaties Can be Changed
Canada could have withdrawn from the treaties completely. That requires a year’s notice, and sales are scheduled to begin July 1, 2018. Instead, Canada seems likely to stay with the treaties but just disregard them as far as marijuana is concerned. That might hurt its international reputation in general, and its attempt to get on the UN Security Council in particular, but other penalties seem unlikely.
There are ways around the treaties – the Transnational Institute suggests several in a 2016 briefing paper here – or of changing or writing new cannabis-only treaties. Stanford University’s Keith Humphreys, a Professor of Psychiatry, thinks it would be relatively easy for the world community to write a cannabis-specific treaty without unravelling the entirety of international drug treaties.
Mexico has legalised medical cannabis nationwide and is set to legalise marijuana-based medicines, foods, drinks, cosmetics and other products this year. A poll in the International Journal of Drug Policy found that 40% of respondents in Chile and Colombia favour legalising marijuana too.
With some form of marijuana available in almost all of North America, it’s time to amend not only US law but the international drug treaties to reflect reality, decriminalise cannabis and study its real harms and benefits.