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The U.N. really wishes that voters in Alaska and Oregon hadn’t legalized weed

Executive Director from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC, Yury Fedotov, arrives at a press conference at the International Center in Vienna, Austria, Monday, March 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)
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The U.N.'s top drug czar says that state-level marijuana legalization initiatives are violations of longstanding international drug treaties. Yury Fedotov, the director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, told reporters that "I don't see how [state-level marijuana legalization in the U.S.] can be compatible with existing conventions," according to a Reuters report.

Fedotov's remarks are notable for coming less than a month after Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield outlined an official policy of "flexibility" in the U.S.'s interpretation of existing U.N. drug control conventions, which require countries to strictly outlaw the sale and use of many common drugs.

Noting that the first of the three major treaties was drafted in 1961, Brownfield said that "things have changed since 1961. We must have enough flexibility to allow us to incorporate those changes into our policies." He called for all nations, the U.S. included, to "tolerate different national drug policies, to accept the fact that some countries will have very strict drug approaches; other countries will legalize entire categories of drugs."

These remarks clearly didn't sit well with Fedotov. The Brookings Institution's Wells Bennett, who has written extensively about U.S. drug policy in the context of international treaty obligations, said in an email that "Fedotov wasn't exactly a ready-made audience for a claim of "flexibility"... U.N. officials and Russia's government typically take a quite strict stance towards marijuana and other substances, and presumptively bat away any policy short of that."

Bennett says that Fedotov's remarks "suggest growing skepticism from the international drug control bureaucracy." And indeed, the United Nations already voiced disapproval after Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana in 2012.

Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University professor who studies drug policy, wrote at the time that state-level laws do not put the U.S. in violation of international treaties, since it is the federal government, not the states, who is a signatory to the treaties. He noted that the U.N. has very little ability to punish countries that legalize marijuana, and said "in short, supporters of marijuana legalization don't really need to worry about the UN drug control treaties."

In an email, Humphries said that Fedotov's remarks are about 2016: "Everyone I believe is positioning themselves for 2016, during which drug control will be the subject of a special session of the UN general assembly." After Obama leaves office in early 2017, "The new administration will have to decide if it wants to keep stretching the meaning of the treaties or formalize a different approach to marijuana. The politics around marijuana in the USA are favorable for this among voters, but not in the senate which would vote on any revised treaty."

Brookings' Wells Bennett agrees that there's a limit to how much flexibility the U.S. will be able to claim in its interpretation of international drug law, particularly with even more states considering legalization measures in 2016. "The administration asserts that its policy complies with the treaties because they leave room for flexibility and prosecutorial discretion," he wrote in a recent report with John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America. "That argument makes sense on a short-term, wait-and-see basis, but it will rapidly become implausible and unsustainable if legalization spreads and succeeds."

The United States was the driving force behind putting marijuana under the strictest category of international drug schedules to begin with. 40 years later we find ourselves at the vanguard of a global marijuana legalization movement, driven largely by voters rather than elites. It's understandable that some of our former drug war allies, notably Russia, are bewildered by the about-face.

The diplomatic tiff also makes for a textbook example of the aisle-crossing politics of marijuana reform. In the U.S., conservatives are typically less supportive of drug reform efforts than liberals. But it didn't take long for the conservative media to lambast Fedotov and the U.N. for trying to interfere with domestic politics. Fox News called it "the latest incident of a U.N. official meddling in local U.S. affairs." Conservative outlet The New American warned that "the so-called 'dictators club' increasingly seeks to impose dangerous and anti-constitutional policies on the free and independent American people."

If anything, U.N. condemnation may simply galvanize more conservative support for marijuana legalization measures, under the banner of states' rights and self-determination. This, at least, was the case laid out by U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) at a press conference on D.C.'s legalization bill yesterday.