The U.S. May Support Revolutionary Reform to International Drug Policy

March 10th 2016

In a dramatic departure from the "War on Drugs" policy of the last 40 years, the U.S. may support international drug reform measures that would open the doors to decriminalization in countries around the world, a U.S. State Department official revealed on Tuesday. 

BrownfieldU.S. Department of State - state.gov

William Brownfield, the Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, fielded questions from reporters about the U.S. position on international drug reform proposals that will be taken up at a United Nations General Assembly Special Session in April. His comments seemed to reflect a radical shift in the federal government's attitude toward drug laws. 

While Brownfield reaffirmed the country's commitment to "limiting and eventually eliminating" drug use — as sanctioned at three previous international drug conventions — he said that the U.S. will support a "pragmatic approach to reform of global drug policy" that "calls for greater focus on public health and healthcare as relates to the drug issue, rehabilitation, treatment, education." He explained:

"We will call for pragmatic and concrete criminal justice reform, areas such as alternatives to incarceration or drug courts, or sentencing reform. In other words, as President Obama has said many times publicly, to decriminalize much of the basic behavior in drug consumption in order to focus scarce law enforcement resources on the greater challenge of the large transnational criminal organizations."

rehabWikimedia - wikimedia.org

International drug policy is changing its approach.

There are two sides of the drug policy spectra, Brownfield said. There are those who believe that regulated legalization is the best practice to reduce drug abuse; and oppositely, there are those who feel that penalizing and incarcerating drug offenders will ultimately curb abuse, according to Brownfield. The goal of this year's international drug convention will be to identify policies that fall somewhere in the middle of those extremes. 

prisonWikimedia - wikimedia.org

No matter what the international community decides on in April, however, Brownfield emphasized that countries should have a degree of autonomy when it comes to developing their own drug laws. "One size does not fit all," he said. "Every country is not exactly the same. And we must be tolerant of the sovereign authority of a government to develop and apply the drug strategy that is most effective for their condition and their reality." 

To that end, if a country's government feels that the use and possession drugs for personal use ought to be decriminalized in order to "reduce the harm caused by the product," then they should have liberty to do so, Brownfield said.

On marijuana legalization efforts in the U.S. 

marijuanaWikimedia - wikimedia.org

The progressive position taken by the U.S. State Department official in Tuesday's conference seemed to reveal a willingness to move past Drug War-era policies of strict criminalization on a federal level. That said, Brownfield did not stray far from the federal line when it came to marijuana. He did, however, seem to differentiate between recreational and medical marijuana.

"[O]ur objective remains that of limiting and eventually eliminating the use of marijuana in the United States of America because of its harm and its dangers, excepting and not entering into the medical exception issue, which I acknowledge is still out there, and we said that is still our objective," Brownfield said

Brownfield says state-level legalization efforts in the U.S. do not violate international drug policy.

"It is the position of the United States Government, for example, that despite the fact that four of our states have voted to legalize the cultivation, production, sale, purchase, and consumption of cannabis, or marijuana, that we are still in compliance with our treaty obligations, because first, the federal law, national law, still proscribes and prohibits marijuana; and second, because the objective, as asserted by the states themselves, is still to reduce the harm caused by the consumption or marijuana."

What are the implications? 

If the member states of the United Nations, including the U.S., support the type of international drug reform agenda that Brownfield outlined, the implications could be wide-ranging. ATTN: previously reported on a leaked document from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which indicated that the international agency supported decriminalization in the interest of public health and criminal justice reform. 

Only one member state, Portugal, has decriminalized the use and possession of drugs for personal use; but it's possible that others would follow suit if the United Nations backed the policy. And for countries such as Canada, which has expressed interest in legalizing marijuana at the federal level, this revised approach to drug policy might clarify international laws that might have otherwise deterred the country from moving forward with its own marijuana reform measures.

That said, there must be consensus among United Nations member states. And while the U.S. has historically informed international drug policy, we will have to wait until April's convention to fully understand how Brownfield's "pragmatic approach" holds up. 

To learn more about other countries' drug laws, check out this ATTN: video:

RELATED: These 5 Countries Have the Best Drug Laws in the World

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