State-level cannabis reforms, which gathered steam this month, have exposed the inability of the United States to abide by the terms of the legal bedrock of the global drug control system; the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. This is something that should force a much-needed conversation about reform to long-standing international agreements. But while ostensibly 'welcoming' the international drug policy reform debate, it is a conversation the US federal government actually wishes to avoid. The result is a new official position on the UN drugs treaties that, despite its seductively progressive tone, serves only to sustain the status quo and may cause damage beyond drug policy.
The 1961 Single Convention has been massively influential. Almost every state in the world is bound to prohibit cultivation, trade and possession of cannabis and a range of other substances such as coca and opium for anything but medical and scientific purposes. Wherever you are, your drugs laws are probably modeled on this agreement.
The United States has been a staunch defender of this legal regime. The treaties are central to its foreign policy on drugs, including in Latin America. But at home the government has been clear that it will not trample on the will of voters with regard to cannabis, even though this places it in breach of the 1961 Convention. So the US faces a predicament; a treaty breach it does not wish to admit within a system it wishes to protect.
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