New marijuana laws in U.S. violate international treaties


Wells Bennett, second from left, discusses the ramifications the U.S. government could face if no action is taken regarding legalized marijuana in several states. He spoke with a panel of international drug policy experts at the Brookings Institution Friday. SHFWire Photo by Kara Mason

By  Kara Mason,

WASHINGTON – Marijuana’s legalization in Colorado and Washington has put the U.S. in violation of multiple international treaties for the past two years. And with Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., possibly following suit, it could be bad news for the U.S. on the international stage, says a new Brookings Institution report.

The U.S. government has been a strong supporter of three treaties that outlaw marijuana until 2012, Wells Bennett, a fellow in national security law at the Brookings Institution Governance Studies program, said at a recent forum in Washington, D.C.

But the Obama administration has been relatively quiet about the federal and international laws the two states are breaking. The federal government has taken no action in Colorado or Washington regarding legalization.

“It’s a problem because we’re straining the limits of an international drug control regime that most participants, including the United States, have long understood to be quite strict,” Bennett said in a blog post on the Brookings Institution website.

“It is true that there is flexibility built into this regime, but if you push that flexibility too far, the question becomes: Will treaty partners in this regime and other regimes start to become opportunistic about their own flexibility? That’s something the United States should think about soberly as it works through marijuana policy,” he said.

Violations of decades-old agreements

Though technicalities have taken a back seat to issues like drugged driving and edible marijuana regulations in Colorado and Washington, legalizing pot in the U.S. violated three international treaties: the 1961 Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances and the 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.

Under the 1961 convention, marijuana is a Schedule I drug, which means nations are urged to outlaw the drug except in cases of medical and scientific use. More than 100 narcotic drugs, mostly plant-based, are controlled by the treaty.


Further legalization of marijuana in the U.S. could serve as an opportunity to amend or denounce the treaties to remove marijuana from the Schedule I drug list, the report said.

But treaty reform is highly political. More than 100 nations have signed the treaties, and they would all have to approve any change to it.

Action unlikely

Like many treaties, there isn’t a way to enforce violations.

After recreational marijuana use was officially passed in Colorado and Washington, Raymond Yans, president of the International Narcotics Control Board, which enforces drug treaties, released a statement of concern about the new laws, but nothing else was ever done.

“Legalization of cannabis within these states would send wrong and confusing signals to youth and society in general, giving the false impression that drug abuse might be considered normal and even, most disturbingly, safe,” Yans said in the news release.

But any kind of action for this violation is extremely unlikely, according to David Akerson, international law lecturer at the University of Denver.

Bringing action against the U.S. would mean going through the United Nations Security Council. Because the U.S. is a permanent member on the council and has veto power, it’s nearly impossible to do anything.

“It’s a nice academic exercise to say we’re breaking these treaties,” Akerson said. “But I’d be surprised if there was a consensus on the point that marijuana should be a part of this treaty.”

Reach reporter Kara Mason at or 202-408-1492.

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