Marijuana laws and policies are beginning to undergo reform in Latin America and in some states in the U.S., such as Colorado and Washington, as policymakers shift from a strict prohibitionist approach to one that embraces both public health and human rights principles to tackle the illicit drug problem. Just this past week, the District of Columbia moved one step closer to liberalizing its marijuana laws when the House panel debated Mayor Vincent Gray’s bill to decriminalize possession. Faced with an escalating drug crisis, Mexico is also considering alternative approaches with the introduction of two bills that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and would also allow for limited retail sales of marijuana in Mexico City. But it is the comparatively small country of Uruguay that is spearheading the drug liberalization movement by boldly becoming the first country to fully legalize, regulate and participate in the production, sale and taxation of cannabis. The law recently came into full effect on May 6th, 2014.
Policy makers have been impelled to explore drug law reform because the punitive and zero-tolerance approach to illicit drugs has failed. Governments spend more than $100 billion per year in countering the illicit drug trade and yet, availability and abuse of narcotics continues to soar. Moreover, the illicit drug industry is estimated to be the third most valuable industry in the world and valued at $450 billion per year. There is growing evidence that alternative approaches such as the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana are more effective in addressing the drug problem and are also strongly supported by both fundamental human rights principles and a public health approach to drug policy.
A Public Health and Human Rights Approach
There is a solid public health rational supporting more liberal marijuana laws and policies. Importantly, the decriminalization of marijuana has the potential to help address what is perhaps the gravest threat to public health – the human death toll of drug war homicide. Alejandro Madrazo Lajous, a law professor at Mexico City’s CIDE Law School, has conducted extensive research in this area. He estimates that in Mexico the annual human death toll of drug prohibition enforcement increased each year from 2006 to 2011 peaking at more than 11,000 in 2011 and that the increase in homicide rates has actually reduced life-expectancy. In addition to the thousands of lives lost, destroyed families and unimaginable brutality, the drug war creates an alarming “spillover effect” on the health and welfare of communities living in these conflict zones. Researchers have recently found that these populations report high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety as a result of the drug war. One study concluded that the prevalence of PTSD exceeds that of military returning from Iraq or Afghanistan. Proponents of drug policy reform assert that legalizing marijuana may help quell the drug war by undermining the power of organized crime and depriving violent gangs of a significant portion of their narco-wealth. Relaxation of marijuana laws would also help to reduce the stigma experienced by drug users and thereby promote treatment for problematic drug use. By regulating the market, laws such as those passed in Uruguay can reduce the health risks associated with marijuana consumption by controlling drug quality and for example, preventing the addition of substances that tamper with the addictive qualities of the drug. Moreover, the creation of a separate government regulated market for marijuana could also reduce access to harder drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, with more potential for abuse.
In addition to the negative impact on public health, implementation of punitive marijuana laws and policies can lead to a range of violations under international human rights law, including the right to be free from discrimination, arbitrary detention and torture. Research has demonstrated that criminal approaches to illicit drug control have resulted in the disproportionate targeting of vulnerable populations, such as youth, immigrants, racial minorities and sex workers. Studies have also demonstrated that marijuana users are disproportionately punished with lengthy prison terms resulting in the further marginalization of minority populations. Professor Madrazo has documented that roughly 60 percent of Mexico’s federal prison population is serving time for drug crimes. Of that group, an estimated 38% were convicted of possession and over half of these convictions were for possession of marijuana only. In countries such as Columbia and Mexico, the militarization of drug law enforcement has not only fueled gang violence but has led to countless human rights abuses, including arbitrary detention, torture, and extrajudicial executions. As discussed above, the drug war and a criminal approach to illicit drugs can cause severe public health issues and therefore also violate the state’s obligation to respect and fulfill the right to health.
Towards a Reform of the UN 1961 Single Convention
While domestic drug law reform forges ahead and evidence supporting a public health approach mounts, leadership at the international level [or the United Nations] remains stubbornly committed to a zero-tolerance and strict prohibitionist stance on illicit drug control. The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs is one of three international legal instruments under the UN system that prohibits production and supply of narcotics except for medicinal and research purposes. Although the Single Convention expressly provides that its primary concern is “health and human welfare”, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the independent board responsible for the implementation of the UN drug control treaties, has pushed its strict law enforcement policies to the detriment of public health. It has repeatedly criticized Uruguay’s legalization of marijuana in press conferences declaring that it violates the Single Convention. International treaties governing narcotics control were for the most part negotiated and adopted at a time when there was limited understanding of the operation of illicit drug markets relative to our understanding today and are ripe for reform. With more countries like Uruguay refusing to bend to the pressure of the INCB, along with recent reform in Mexico and the United States representing a soft defection from the UN Single Convention’s strict zero tolerance policies, there is unprecedented momentum for change at the international level. Moreover, in 2016 at the UN General Assembly, an international summit reviewing the drug control system will be held. The UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs (UNGASS 2016) will provide a momentous opportunity for the international community to explore reform and alternative approaches to drug policy. As more domestic laws undergo reform, it will be imperative to generate additional evidence of the impact of these laws in order to support change at the international level so that health and human rights may one day take precedence over punishment.
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The views reflected in this blog are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.