Uruguay is poised to legalize recreational marijuana on Tuesday, an experiment that will force the United States to reevaluate its own international drug policies.
The Uruguayan government will oversee the cultivation and distribution of pot, and residents will be able to purchase up to 1.4 ounces of marijuana each month.
Along with Uruguay, other nations are considering marijuana law reforms.
Are these signs that the United States is de-escalating the global war on drugs?
When it comes to marijuana, yes.
Don’t expect overt policy change from federal agencies yet. But the new pot laws in Colorado and Washington have put American officials in a predicament: the country that’s been driving the global drug war now has states and cities undermining its own policies.
“The U.S. is going to be in a weak position to pressure other countries,” said John Walsh, a drug-policy expert with the Washington Office on Latin America. “You’re not going to come out and applaud Uruguay, nor are they going to be — and I think they recognize this — in a strong position to denounce Uruguay.”
In August, the Justice Department issued a memo that said the two states legalizing pot could move forward with their programs, as long as the states adhere to certain guidelines.
But the federal government still considers cannabis a Schedule I substance, meaning it has no recognized medical value and a high potential for abuse.
Perhaps more importantly, a 1961 United Nations treaty prohibits the cultivation and distribution of marijuana apart from medical and scientific uses.
So the legalization programs in Colorado and Washington aren’t just breaking federal law. They’re also defying an international agreement, a treaty that the U.S. has championed for more than 50 years.
“The idea that many people have become accustomed to for decades, that the U.S. is chief enforcer of the drug war and drug policy — at least in the case of marijuana — that’s changing,” Walsh said.
Walsh says that he doesn’t expect U.S. officials to scream and shout when Uruguay legalizes pot, mainly because any condemnation would be hypocritical.
Indeed, a statement from the U.S. Department of State reflected a middle-of-the-road approach.
“The United States is committed to upholding its obligations under U.N. drug control conventions,” said spokesperson Pooja Jhunjhunwala.
Jhunjhunwala added that the treaties “allow a measure of flexibility” and have “shown the capacity to permit variations in national law and policy.”
None of this amounts to a go-ahead for Uruguay’s legalization law. But it’s much more tempered than the response from the United Nations.
The U.N. International Narcotic Control Board (INCB) said that it was “very concerned” with the idea that Uruguay could legalize marijuana.
And the board hasn’t let the U.S. off the hook, either.
INCB President Raymond Yans condemned Colorado and Washington in November, and said that it’s “fully necessary” for the board to engage in diplomatic relations with the American government “so that they take measures to stop this nonsense.”
That’s a bit of a hollow threat, however. The U.S. provides an estimated 22 percent of the total United Nations budget — the largest of any single nation — and has traditionally wielded a heavy hand in global drug policy.
The takeaway: Since the federal government is allowing states to move forward with marijuana legalization, they don’t have much choice but to allow countries to do the same.
But don’t expect the U.S. to attempt to rewrite global drug treaties until there’s a change in federal law.
That could bode well for nations that want to legalize pot. If Uruguay’s program is a success — and if the U.S. doesn’t interfere — expect more countries to follow.
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.