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August 30, 2001

Narco News 2001

Fact-Checking Washington's Threats...

U.N. Treaties and the

Legalization of Drugs

By Peter Webster

Special to The Narco News Bulletin

As dissatisfaction with the results of drug prohibition mounts once again, it is natural to expect that analysts of the situation will propose a wide variety of ways to "improve" legislation, enforcement, addiction treatment, and other currently popular "remedies" for illegal drug use. The scenario is not new, although recently the perceived failure of prohibitionist policies seems to be reaching new heights.

With each outbreak of recognition of prohibition's faults, however, a few observers dare to question the very concept of prohibition, trying to convince authorities and the public at large that perhaps prohibitionist policy is itself the root of the problems we have habitually ascribed to the prohibited substances. This view rejects in principle the idea that prohibition can be "fixed" or "improved," its results made at least somewhat less disastrous by tinkering with the details of prohibitionist policies.

The current outbreak of disillusionment with prohibition seems also to be producing unprecedented numbers of critics in this camp. Not only independent researchers and writers, but notable political figures in several countries have suggested outright that prohibition's Golden Age is over, and in the interests of public health, control of powerful and world-wide criminal syndicates, protection of human rights and other necessary goals, a complete reversal of prohibition is not only justified but obligatory and long overdue.

Such currents of dissent exist widely today not only in European societies known for their pragmatism and tolerance, but also in countries hard hit by the negative results of the U.S. Drug War.

Parliamentarians, governors, police, and even presidents in several countries of Latin America have thus joined in with long-enduring reform voices in Europe and North America in calling for a repeal of drug prohibition, recognizing that only a system of controlled legalization can provide a measure of control over the manufacture and access to drugs.

The U.S. federal government is likely to be on the caboose of this train of reform, however, for several reasons that need not be examined here. The U.S., with the assistance of its handmaiden U.N. drug control agencies, is instead trying to reinforce drug prohibition and has cajoled, intimidated, and threatened no small number of nations that have made moves away from U.S./U.N. dictates. A major tool in this process has been the U.N. international drug treaties that were essentially forced upon their signatories by the U.S. These treaties today provide the U.S. federal authorities with an immediate rejoinder to any moves or even suggestions for drug policy reform that might tend to discredit U.S. prohibitionist policy.

For example, on August 16, 2001, the Jamaica Observer reported on the results of an enquiry by its National Ganja Commission, which recommended "the decriminalization of ganja for personal, private use by adults and for use as a sacrament for religious purposes."

Within hours, the U.S. Embassy was already "hinting" that Jamaica could face certification problems during its next annual narcotics review:

"The US government will consider Jamaica's adherence to its commitments under the 1988 UN Drug Convention when making its determination under the annual narcotics certification review," US Embassy spokesman Michael Koplovsky said.

A similar threat was issued by U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson in response to a legalization debate in the Colombian Congress, an event reinforced by a "Historic Resolution" by the National Assembly of Colombian Governors recommending an end to drug prohibition.

Pressure to reform cannabis laws in Britain has also been mounting during the past year, and although such direct threats to a major U.S. ally were not immediately obvious, a story from the U.K.'s GUARDIAN newspaper indicated that reformers in the U.K. had been anticipating U.S. objections based on the U.N. treaties:

Pubdate: Tue, 28 Aug 2001
Source: Guardian, The (UK)


Special Report: Drugs In Britain

A reform of Britain's drug laws could be introduced without the government breaching its international obligations under UN drug control conventions, according to a legal study published today....

The conclusions of the study, entitled European Drug Laws: the Room for Manoeuvre, are important because opponents of drug law reform have argued that Britain could not liberalise its drug laws even if it wanted to because it would breach the UN treaty.

I would like to suggest, however, that there exists an important loophole in the 1988 U.N. Treaty that would not only allow some leeway for countries to "ease drug laws" and soften the impact of radical prohibition, but to declare the treaty entirely inapplicable and void.

The UNDCP World Drug Report (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997: p185) states:

"...[none of the] three international drug Conventions insist on the establishment of drug consumption per se as a punishable offense. Only the 1988 Convention clearly requires parties to establish as criminal offenses under law the possession, purchase or cultivation of controlled drugs for the purpose of non-medical, personal consumption, UNLESS TO DO SO WOULD BE CONTRARY TO THE CONSTITUTIONAL PRINCIPLES AND BASIC CONCEPTS OF THEIR LEGAL SYSTEMS." (Capitals added)

It would appear that if the highest court of a nation would rule that the prohibition of a drug such as cannabis is unconstitutional, it would automatically render null and void all the problematic restrictions of the U.N. treaties in question. This is the very road that Canada appears to be following, with a Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of cannabis prohibition expected later this year.

Any nation that recognizes that drug prohibition infringes human rights, produces millions of victims, threatens the world economy, creates powerful international criminal syndicates, and thus constitutes what may well be seen someday as a crime against humanity, should seriously consider employing this loophole, declaring prohibitionist policy to be unconstitutional and abusive of human rights guaranteed by national and international documents and treaties that must take precedence over the U.N. drug control treaties. A group of nations which, as a bloc, issued such a resolution, might well provide the needed catalyst that would topple a century-long folly and lead the way to intelligent and effective drug policy for societies the world over.

Peter Webster is Review Editor for the International Journal of Drug Policy - - the Official Journal of the International Harm Reduction Association. For subscriptions:

He is also Webmaster of the DRCNet Online Library of Drug Policy - - and The Psychedelic Library -

Democracy, Sovereignty and Liberty