State-level cannabis reforms, which gathered steam this month, have exposed the inability of the United States to abide by the terms of the legal bedrock of the global drug control system; the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. This is something that should force a much-needed conversation about reform to long- standing international agreements. But while ostensibly 'welcoming' the international drug policy reform debate, it is a conversation the US federal government actually wishes to avoid.
The result is a new official position on the UN drugs treaties that, despite its seductively progressive tone, serves only to sustain the status quo and may cause damage beyond drug policy.
The 1961 Single Convention has been massively influential. Almost every state in the world is bound to prohibit cultivation, trade and possession of cannabis and a range of other substances such as coca and opium for anything but medical and scientific purposes. Wherever you are, your drugs laws are probably modeled on this agreement.
The United States has been a staunch defender of this legal regime. The treaties are central to its foreign policy on drugs, including in Latin America. But at home the government has been clear that it will not trample on the will of voters with regard to cannabis, even though this places it in breach of the 1961 Convention. So the US faces a predicament; a treaty breach it does not wish to admit within a system it wishes to protect.
The response is the new 'four pillars' approach, set out by Ambassador William Brownfield (Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement):
• Respect the integrity of the existing UN Drug Control Conventions...
• Accept flexible interpretation of those conventions...
• Tolerate different national drug policies...accept the fact that some countries will have very strict drug approaches; other countries will legalize entire categories of drugs...
• Combat and resist criminal organizations
Brownfield's statement received some positive responses, welcoming it as a breakthrough in drug policy reform. However, its attractiveness is superficial and there are important reasons to be cautious.
For US foreign policy on drugs the four pillars make sense in the short term. Through these pillars, the US can appear to embrace reform discussions while changing nothing of substance. US approaches to Latin America that have dominated US attentions can carry on as before. The US gets to continue to have presence in places it has no business being other than to fight the drug trade - the fourth pillar of this 'new' approach.
In addition, in defending the 'integrity of the treaties', the US can go on using those treaties as a disciplinary tool against producer and transit nations in the region. Under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, when a country does not fulfill the requirements of the international drugs conventions, the President determines that the country has 'failed demonstrably' to meet its obligations, which can lead to sanctions.
Bolivia received such a determination again only a few weeks ago. While explaining the rationale for a more 'flexible interpretation' Brownfield said, 'Things have changed since 1961'. However, the Presidential Determination on Bolivia stressed that the 'frameworks established by the U.N. conventions are as applicable to the contemporary world as when they were negotiated and signed by the vast majority of U.N. member states'.
The determination further expressed the US government's concern that Bolivia tries 'to limit, redefine, and circumvent the scope and control' for coca under the 1961 Convention, even though that is precisely what the US is doing in the case of cannabis.
The US also objected to Bolivia's efforts to have traditional uses of coca removed from international control because it challenged the 'integrity of the treaties' - the very first pillar above. So which countries' reforms or interpretations will be deemed tolerable, and which will threaten the integrity of the treaties? Crucially, who decides?
It is clear that a legally regulated market in cannabis is not permissible under the 1961 Single Convention. To deal with this the US, in the second pillar above, has signalled its acceptance of unilateral interpretation of multilateral agreements beyond what those agreements allow for. That is a very serious call beyond cannabis and beyond drug policies. The attempt under the Bush administration to argue that waterboarding was not a breach of the UN Convention Against Torture and that detainees in the war on terror were not covered by the Geneva Conventions should caution against allowing this kind of unilateral approach.
In reality, beyond the progressive sounding words, the path the Brownfield doctrine set out leads to further US exceptionalism and the ongoing use of the treaties as it sees fit.
But that exceptionalism cuts both ways, and the US has also vital interests, including national security, in holding states to international and bilateral treaty obligations. A recent example demonstrates the risks of failing to take this into account. In July, the US issued a determination that Russia was in violation of obligations of the Inter-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), a bilateral agreement banning the testing of ballistic missiles of a certain range. But if a 'flexible', a-la-carte approach is to be permissible under the drug control regime when it suits the US, why should that not apply here?
Why not other important international agreements that matter to so many such as environmental protocols setting specific targets, or human rights law and its vital protections? Following the second pillar to the extent the US suggests is a very slippery slope.
The shift to regulated cannabis markets in the US should open the space for a much-needed discussion of treaty reform. The problem at hand is not the treaty breach by the US; the problem is the drug control treaty system itself. Preparations have started for a UN summit on drugs in 2016, the first in almost twenty years, and where a conversation about treaty reform should begin. The Brownfield doctrine is part of US efforts to keep it off the agenda.
For governments, in an effort to avoid political controversy, the four pillars may seem attractive. For those who support drug policy reform they may seem progressive. But this is no win for drug policy reform or progress towards policies grounded in evidence and human rights. To allow the US, for its own ends, to lead us into a politically calculated theatre of adherence simply serves to sustain a regime that is no longer fit for purpose. It is also harmful for the integrity of international law more broadly, from human rights, to security to the environment. The price of allowing the US to avoid its breach of the 1961 Convention, in other words, is too high. And the war on drugs has already cost too much.
Professor Dave Bewley-Taylor
Director, Global Drug Policy Observatory, Swansea University
Coordinator, Transnational Institute Drugs and Democracy Programme
Director, International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy