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A top UN official says marijuana legalization in the US violates international law

A marijuana plant.
A marijuana plant.
Uriel Sinai / Getty Images News
  1. UN anti-drug chief Yury Fedotov told reporters on Wednesday that marijuana legalization in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington state, and Washington, DC, violates international law.
  2. Voters in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC, legalized marijuana last week during the 2014 midterm elections.
  3. Although four states and DC have legalized marijuana, the federal government still considers pot illegal.

The debate over international drug treaties and state-by-state legalization

Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University professor and drug policy advisor, previously argued that states aren't signatories to international drug control treaties — only the federal government is. So the federal government is meeting its international obligations as long as marijuana remains illegal under federal law, even if some states allow pot.

But Wells Bennett of the Brookings Institute argues that international drug control treaties require participants to actually enforce drug prohibition, not just enact a law. If that's the case, the US is required under international obligations to wage a war on marijuana regardless of what voters decide at the state level — and it can't turn a blind eye to legalization in Colorado, Washington, and other states as it has since 2013.

A report by the Congressional Research Service suggested marijuana legalization in Washington, DC, could produce a particular sticking point with the international treaties since DC is a federal jurisdiction and Congress could directly overturn the legalization law, the Washington Times reported. "This line of reasoning suggests that if Initiative 71 is permitted to take effect, this inaction by the federal government may strengthen the Board's argument that the United States has not fulfilled its commitments under the Single Convention," the report stated.

The debate and confusion may eventually lead to reform. During the 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs, reformers hope to change international drug laws to allow legalization and other drug policy experiments.