Following the marijuana legalization victories in Colorado and Washington State, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) issued a warning to the United States, claiming pro-marijuana laws violate international law. The INCB insisted that the US should challenge pro-marijuana laws of states that have democratically passed such laws. The INCB is a body of the United Nations that oversees drug treaties facilitated by the U.N. In 1961, the US took part in the U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which prohibited participating countries from legalizing marijuana use. The INCB also claimed the US is obligated to challenge popular state laws that allow marijuana use for medicinal purposes, because such state laws could allow marijuana use that is unapproved by the treaty.
If the response from other countries, which the INCB has criticized, is any indication of how the US will react, then one, who hopes U.N. policy won’t dictate US law, should not be worried. Australia and Canada did not end their policies of providing safe injection sites for sick drug users when the INCB challenged such policies. Nor did Bolivia change its allowance of coca cultivation in response to INCB criticism. Furthermore, even if the US bases its refusal to legalize marijuana on the U.N. treaty, U.N. treaties do not bind the 50 states, and thus international law cannot force individual states to criminalize marijuana possession. In all likelihood, international treaties will not play much of a role in shaping emerging marijuana legalization in US states.
The real issue revealed by the INCB attack on state marijuana laws is the how utterly ineffective and outdated international drug policies actually are, which the U.N. stubbornly defends. The U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs prohibited marijuana legalization in hopes of stopping drug use and reducing the harmful effects of drug use. More than half a century later, the results of such policies have shown that drug use and its harmful effects have not decreased. In fact, drug prohibition policies have made the global situation worse, as shown by international studies from multiple scholarly organizations, such as the Transnational Institute and the Global Drug Policy Program. Recently, even the U.N. admitted in its annual World Drug Report, despite its strong prohibition against certain drugs like marijuana, drug war efforts are “floundering.”