In years past, when it came to the ‘war on drugs,’ the sides of this issue used to be much more clearly defined. But a cultural shift is upon us, especially pertaining to attitudes toward marijuana. Can we maintain flexibility regarding regional drug legislation, dependent on localized needs and sentiments, and still maintain a unifying global drug policy? Read on to find out more about how conflicting stances on marijuana legislation could lead to global rifts and increasing difficulties for policy makers.
Is there a common ground?
Before we get into a country-specific discussion, it would be beneficial to determine what, if anything, is globally accepted regarding marijuana legislation – as established by the United Nations, which currently represents 193 of the 195 countries.
Modern global drug policy is the result of three major treaties, which are the result of three separate U.N. global conventions on drug policy held in 1961, 1971, and 1988. These treaties recognized the potential use for marijuana as a medical treatment and defined the illegal use of the drug as being for any purposes other than medicine or science, such as its independent (non-prescribed) use, possession, transport, and its unregulated sale.
In terms of defining the degree of legality of drugs, these categories (i.e. use, possession, transport, and sale) still pervade most modern drug policy, with countries segregating and assigning different laws and standards to each category. For example, in Colombia the possession of marijuana is legal for personal and medical use, as is the cultivation of the plant, but its transport and sale is illegal. In Uruguay, however, which is arguably the world’s most liberal country regarding marijuana legislation, allows for the use, possession, transport, and cultivation of marijuana.
The three treaties required the then 154 member states to enact “adequate punishment” for the illegal cultivation, production, or possession of marijuana and other narcotics. Throughout history, the U.N. has strongly discouraged countries from exploring their own alternative approaches to drug policy, since this would be seen as acting in violation of the established treaties. The most recent United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem was held in 1998. This conference, called “A Drug Free World: We can do it!”, declared among the goals the reduction (or eradication) of cocaine, opium and cannabis production by the year 2008, but no official treaty or changes in local drug policy resulted from this session.
In response to changing policies on the local level and subsequent fragmentation regarding international drug policy, another UNGASS will be held April 19-21, 2016 at the UN Headquarters in New York. According to the official agenda of this session, topics covered will include new challenges, threats and realities in preventing and addressing the world’s drug problem in compliance with relevant international law. This includes strengthening the principle of international cooperation.
Legalisation vs. Decriminalisation
If you have been following recent news surrounding the legal debate over marijuana, you may be familiar with the terms legalisation and decriminalisation. What is the difference?
Legalisation is a hardline term. If marijuana is determined to be legal, this simply means you won’t be arrested, fined, or convicted for using marijuana, if you follow the local laws. Many places have determined marijuana to be legal for personal or medical use but illegal in other capacities, so it is important to understand that legality is generally not a blanket term. At present, Uruguay is the only country that has full legality of marijuana including the use, transport, sale, and cultivation of the plant.
Decriminalisation means that regional laws have been changed or amended to make certain marijuana related actions no longer subject to serious prosecution but are still criminal. Under the guise of decriminalisation, marijuana is technically still illegal, but the penalties are decreased, reflecting perhaps the push and pull felt by politicians and policy makers from opposing sides of the issue.
The Power Players
The United States has previously been considered a frontrunner in the war on drugs. Its strict stance on blanket laws restricting the use, transport, sale, and production of cocaine and marijuana specifically have had a great impact on international drug policy. However, anyone who has tuned into the news recently knows that this ‘strict stance’ is weakening, and the country is becoming theoretically and legally fragmented as more and more states loosen or even eliminate their laws regarding marijuana.
From an international perspective, many feel that this may make the United States look flaky, to say the least. The country is acting in violation of the tough international drug policies it has championed for decades and is essentially proving that the social impact of marijuana use is far from detrimental. In this regard, the U.S. could represent itself as a proponent of relaxed laws surrounding marijuana and cause a drastic shift in global drug policy.
Aside from the U.S., other power players Russia and China continue to take a hardline stance against the legalisation of marijuana and other drugs.
Expert Advocacy of Relaxed Marijuana Legislation
In light of recent scientific evidence and increased efforts by NGOs and proponents of the legalisation of marijuana, many drug experts have been renouncing their stances against the criminalisation of marijuana. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, wrote after traveling the world and meeting with medical experts and medical marijuana patients that “We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States,” and apologized for his personal role in this.
Many other people agree with Gupta’s new stance, and believe that marijuana should be legal for medicinal uses. Not only is marijuana considered harmless by many, an increasing number of medical studies have determined it to be beneficial for chronically ill people suffering from M.S., cancer, pain, and depression, among other ailments. This begs the question: why is something that has proven benefits still criminalized?
The other side of the argument
Many anti-drug advocates continue to consider marijuana a ‘gateway drug.’ In other words, the plant itself may not necessarily result in physical addiction or harm, but it opens doors to other drugs. Foundation for a Drug-free World reports that the vast majority of cocaine users, about 99.9%, preceded their cocaine use with the use of marijuana, cigarettes, or alcohol. Another theory is that marijuana users may turn to harder drugs after using marijuana in order to chase a stronger high that marijuana simply does not offer. They also highlight that the act of smoking marijuana can be harmful to your health, specifically your lungs.
When abused, pot can lead to dependency and effect with your memory and emotions. While the general sentiment seems to be towards reducing severity of punishment relating to marijuana, in 33 countries drug offences still can carry the death penalty, according to Harm Reduction International.
Where do we go from here?
History has shown us that legalisation of a drug does not directly correspond to its potentially harmful impacts on people. Take for instance the legal status of alcohol. Although we generally consider alcohol to be a socially acceptable substance to consume, we also universally acknowledge the potentially devastating effects of overconsumption of alcohol and its potential to become addictive.
The rift between liberal and conservative stances on marijuana legislation is widening, and local governments are subtly or directly undermining global treaties instated by the United Nations. Some believe that this may cause chaos in global policy on marijuana and perhaps even extend to complicate current policies on other drugs. Others believe these are inevitable changes, as the result of an increasingly informed and opinionated global society.
As an addiction rehab center, we understand both sides of this argument and understand that throughout history, national and international opinions on various substances have changed dependent on cultural outlook and emerging research. We have assisted patients through recovery who have demonstrated addiction to marijuana and have seen the potential negative effects that the consumption of marijuana can have on health and happiness.
Regardless of your personal stance on marijuana, from a practical perspective it is important to familiarize yourself with the policies and laws regarding marijuana that directly relate to you. Especially when traveling abroad, one should research local drug laws in order to prevent mishap.