If you do not know who Eric Sterling is, permit me to excerpt his bio:
Mr. Sterling was Counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary from 1979 until 1989. On the staff of the Subcommittee on Crime, (Rep. William J. Hughes (D-NJ), Chairman), he was responsible for drug enforcement, gun control, money laundering, organized crime, pornography, terrorism, corrections, and military assistance to law enforcement, among many issues. He was a principal aide in developing the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988, and other laws. He has traveled to South America, Europe and many parts of the United States to examine the crime and drug problems first hand. In the 96th Congress, he worked on comprehensively rewriting the Federal Criminal Code. Mr. Sterling was honored by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
In other words, when Eric Sterling says anything about justice system or drug policy reform, it is probably worth your time. In this case, I wanted to discuss Sterling’s recent analysis of marijuana legalization and America’s international treaty obligations. This is a pertinent topic as Colorado, Washington State, and Oregon will all be voting on marijuana legalization initiatives this fall and a conflict with federal law is inevitable (and some would argue that it is already here). In any case, here is Sterling:
Alternet.org has a very thoughtful article by three members of the New York City Bar Association’s Drugs and the Law Committee on the way international treaties impact efforts to legalize marijuana in the U.S.
The U.S. has signed the Single Convention on Narcotics (1961) and Article VI of the U.S. Constitution provides that federal law and treaties are the “supreme Law of the Land.” The various states are governed by these treaties, and thus limit the ability of any state to legalize marijuana. This is certain to become an issue in the summer and fall of 2012 as the voters of Washington State, Colorado and Oregon consider initiatives to legalize marijuana. If one or more of these pass, these international treaties will be a factor in how the federal government responds.
The authors — Heather J. Haase, Esq., Nicolas Eyle, and Joshua Schrimpf, Esq. — note that the international consensus behind these treaties is being shaken.
A major change in the traditional protocol of the treaties — don’t rock the boat — is coming from Bolivia. When Bolivia (and Peru) acceded to the Single Convention (what we in the U.S. call ratifying the treaty), they agreed to ban their long-time practices of coca chewing and drinking coca tea after 25 years (Article 49.2(e), Single Convention of Narcotics). Since 1987, they have not been in compliance.
A couple of years ago, Bolivia rewrote its constitution and decided to try to change the requirement that it disapprove of coca use. (Bolivia’s President, Evo Morales, came to political prominence as the leader of the union of coca growers!).
Bolivia tried to get the U.N.’s Commission on Narcotics Drugs to change the prohibition on coca use, unsuccessfully.
Now Bolivia is using different approach which is to “withdraw” from the treaty (called “denunciation,” Article 46, Single Convention on Narcotics) and then joining the treaty again (“accession,” Article 40) but with reservations (Article 50.3). The reservation can be rejected if it is objected to by one-third of the countries that are party to the Single Convention within twelve months after a country notified the U.N. Secretary General it wants a reservation. That means that one-third of the 183 nations (“parties”) have to object.
This type of strategy is outlined in chapter 6 in the excellent book by Robin Room, Benedict Fischer, Wayne Hall, Simon Lenton and Peter Reuter, Cannabis Policy: Moving Beyond Stalemate, (Oxford U. Press, 2010).
Moving beyond the strictures of the Single Convention on Narcotics is a worthwhile goal. I am reminded of that line from Keynes:
“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”