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US calls for major reinterpretation of international drug laws

The assistant secretary of state for drugs and law enforcement acknowledged the US would be hypocritical to allow stores like this while criticizing other countries' marijuana legalization schemes.
The assistant secretary of state for drugs and law enforcement acknowledged the US would be hypocritical to allow stores like this while criticizing other countries' marijuana legalization schemes.
Randall Benton / Sacramento Bee via Getty Images

For the first time since the beginning of the war on drugs, the US appears ready to allow other countries to relax their approaches to illicit substances.

In a little-noticed October 9 press conference, Assistant Secretary of State for Drugs and Law Enforcement Bill Brownfield acknowledged that the UN Drug Control Conventions, the pillar of international drug laws, should be reintrpreted to allow more policy flexibility. "The first of them was drafted and enacted in 1961," he said. "Things have changed since 1961."

Brownfield specified that the treaties should "tolerate different national drug policies, to accept the fact that some countries will have very strict drug approaches; other countries will legalize entire categories of drugs."

Brownfield spent a lot of time specifically discussing marijuana legalization in Colorado, Washington state, and Uruguay. "How could I," he said, "a representative of the Government of the United States of America, be intolerant of a government that permits any experimentation with legalization of marijuana if two of the 50 states of the United States of America have chosen to walk down that road?"

The statements come as the US and other countries prepare for the next General Assembly Special Session on drugs in 2016. Drug policy reformers have long seen the 2016 session as their next major opportunity to change international drug laws that have largely required participants — from the US to Uruguay to the Netherlands — to treat drugs as a law enforcement, rather than public health, issue.

Update: A spokesperson for the State Department clarified that Brownfield's remarks didn't intend to call for changing the UN Drug Conventions. The remarks instead advocated for a reinterpretation of the treaties. This article was updated to reflect that.