Could Cannabis Be the Tipping Point to End the Failed War on Drugs?

When British citizen Keith Brown was stopped at an airport in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, he had no idea what was wrong. Scores of Britons travel through the Dubai airport every day, and Brown, a youth development officer and father of three, was simply on his way back to England after visiting one of his children in Ethiopia, according to Daily Mail.

What happened next, Brown’s brother said, “defies belief.”

Legalize MarijuanaA search with high-tech equipment by Dubai’s customs officials identified a tiny speck of cannabis on the bottom of Brown’s shoe. The amount of cannabis, according to officials, weighed just 0.003 grams—less than a single grain of sugar. The speck of marijuana was so small in fact that it could not be seen by the naked eye. Yet, it was enough to land Keith Brown in a Dubai prison for the next four years.

As shocking as this story is to most Americans, stories like this are common in the United Arab Emirates, which has some of the strictest drug laws in the world. In fact, according to UK’s Independent, another man was imprisoned in Dubai for being in “possession” of three poppy seeds. The seeds were crumbs from a bagel he ate at Heathrow Airport in the UK that had stuck to his shirt.

In stark contrast to the abuses happening in countries like the United Arab Emirates, other nations are beginning to take a very different, and far less punitive approach to drug use. This divergence is creating serious questions about the global War on Drugs. Canada’s recent decision to legalize cannabis, for example, in violation of international treaties, is raising questions about what this means for her southern neighbor, and what the growing global movement to legalize marijuana means for the rest of the world.

Despite pushback from more moderate nations and progressive NGOs, UN drug treaties continue to ban the legalization of marijuana. Hobbled by a requirement for consensus, old drug-war-stalwarts like China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, the UAE, and the federal government of the United States continue to deny scientific data, and resist evidence-based approaches to drug use and abuse, preferring to continue with their hardline drug policies that destroy lives, cost taxpayers billions, and repeatedly, spectacularly fail to curb drug use. “Moreover,” according to Human Rights Watch, “the War on Drugs has had disastrous unintended consequences, fueling the spread of violence, human rights abuses and infectious disease in much of the world.”

As a result, there is a growing rift between nations around international drug policies. Rather than yielding to those nations who still employ a punitive approach to drug use—including Russia (where drug offenders risk being flogged, or hypnotized and told they will explode if they use drugs, or, worse still, put into a coma and given electric shocks), or China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Vietnam (where drug offenders are summarily executed)—many nations are moving forward with national reforms in open violation of international treaties. This puts the UN’s entire drug control regime at risk of collapse.

But that might turn out to be a good thing—especially if it leads to more nations setting drug policies in accord with scientific data, and fewer following the cruel and unusual example of the drug war holdouts.

Clearly, the legalization of cannabis is on the move. But could this new global advance be enough to upend the global War on Drugs? What follows is a summary of where a range of different nations come down on pot.

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Canada: Countdown to Cannabis Legalization
While campaigning for prime minister in 2015, Justin Trudeau promised to get to work legalizing cannabis “right away,” a promise that helped him to capture the youth vote and ensure his election. Now, working to set up a strict regulatory framework, the Canadian government has set a target date for the legalization of recreational marijuana of July 1, 2018 (Medical marijuana has been legal in Canada since 2001.). Cannabis will be available for sale to adults 18 years of age, though Canada’s separate provinces will have power over some of the specifics of the new federal law.

Legalize MarijuanaAs a founding member of the United Nations, and with membership in the WTO, the G20, and NATO, Canada’s decision to legalize cannabis is a remarkable development, and cause for celebration. “There are those who sometimes regard Canada as the 51st state,” said U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer, in his comments on the legalization of cannabis in Canada. “It would be an important signal about the movement coming of age,” added the Oregon Congressman, who is a member of the new Congressional Cannabis Caucus in Washington, D.C. “It would add to the critical mass.”

But, Blumenauer also warned, “It would shift the center of gravity.” Indeed, Canada’s bold move to legalize cannabis will have unmistakable consequences for the United States, including the potential loss of considerable first mover advantages. This is also likely to put Canada in a good position for drawing capital, sparking innovation, and setting up export opportunities as other countries around the world begin to rethink their pot policies.

Fortunately, thanks to Obama’s “hands-off” approach toward state-level marijuana laws (i.e. “the Cole memo”), America is still very much in the vanguard of the legalization movement. Nevertheless, if the Trump administration continues to fail to recognize the significance of this moment, things could soon change. “That means that while American states have been blazing the trail,” writes Time, “Canada will likely be taking the baton.”

Germany: Made Medical Marijuana Legal in 2017
Germany has also acknowledged the medical benefits of cannabis and voted unanimously on January 19 in favor of a new “cannabis as medicine” law. The law went into effect nationwide on March 10, 2017, and it includes those patients who have a “serious illness,” as determined by their doctors. Health insurance companies, moreover, are required to cover the costs of medical marijuana treatment. “The law was welcomed by parties on both the left and right,” CNN reports. Germany is also gearing up to grow its own weed, but will rely on imports for the time being. Recreational cannabis remains illegal in Germany, for now.

Portugal: An Example of Best Practices
In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs for personal use. Far from being the brainchild of some radical, pro-drug group of legislators, however, the decision to decriminalize was based on the growing evidence that the decades-old War on Drugs had proven to be a catastrophic failure.

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Image credit: Modern Scribe Photography™

Indeed, as in the United States, the War on Drugs in Portugal was costing the country both in terms of the destruction of lives and the ever burgeoning budgets for enforcement, prosecution, and punishment. Meanwhile, Portugal’s war on drugs was doing nothing to curb drug use—which Portugal wants to do. In fact, that’s the reason Portugal made the controversial move to decriminalize the use of all drugs—to curb drug use. And it’s working.

Rather than treating drug use as a criminal issue that ends with incarceration, criminal records, damaged lives, but also soaring profits for the prison industrial complex, Portugal treats drug use as a public health issue. And, as it turns out, treating it as a public health issue not only saves the government money, but it saves lives. With just 3 deaths per million citizens, Portugal boasts of one of the lowest rates of overdose deaths in the entire world. In comparison, while the EU has an average of 17.3 deaths per million, the UK has 44.6 overdose deaths per million. Worse still, in the U.S., where the War on Drugs is near full bloom, the rate of drug overdose deaths in 2015 was 163 per million—almost four times as high as the worst country in Europe.

This is not to say that decriminalization itself will lead directly or automatically to fewer overdoses. Portugal, for example, in tandem with decriminalization, has also taken the lead with harm reduction measures and extensive treatment programs. It should also be noted that Portugal has a free national healthcare program, which plays a role in reducing overdose deaths.

On the other hand, the correlations are too remarkable to ignore. As Vice News reports, “Overdose deaths decreased from 80 the year that decriminalization was enacted to only 16 in 2012.” Moreover, Portugal’s decriminalization has certainly not had the catastrophic consequences that its opponents predicted. In contrast, there have been other remarkable, positive developments as well. “The rate of new HIV infections in Portugal has fallen precipitously since 2001, the year its law took effect, declining from 1,016 cases to only 56 in 2012.” Is this just a coincidence?

Israel: Leader in Medical Cannabis
Israel holds the distinction of being the home of the man who, more than a half century ago, discovered THC, the active agent in the cannabis plant. Israeli chemist Raphael Mechoulam also discovered the endogenous cannabinoids in the human brain, laying the foundation for cannabinoid research around the world. Today, Mechoulam is considered the “father of cannabinoid research.”

Meanwhile, not surprisingly, Israel stands as a global destination for research into the pharmacology of cannabis. As Garyn Angel, a Florida-based entrepreneur recently named to CNBC’s “Next List” of global innovators, said, “Cannabis is what brought me to Israel. The world’s best cannabis scientists and researchers are all out of Israel. No other country comes close.”

Israel legalized the use, sale and cultivation of medical marijuana in 2005. And while it remains illegal for recreational use, cannabis enjoys bipartisan support in Israel, and was officially decriminalized this past March. Moreover, U.S. News reports, “Israel has the world’s highest ratio of marijuana users, with 27 percent of the population aged 18-65 having used marijuana in the last year.”

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Uruguay: First for Full Cannabis Legalization
Legalize MarijuanaUruguay earned its distinction in the cannabis community in 2013 when it became the first country in the world to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes, which included the sale and cultivation of cannabis. Though Uruguay has been slow to set up a market, presidential aide Juan Andres Roballo recently promised that the cannabis market will officially open in July of 2017. At this point both medical marijuana patients and recreational enthusiasts will be able to purchase up to 40 grams of weed each month from their local pharmacies. Citizens of Uruguay will also be able to grow their own pot plants at home.

Mexico: Decriminalized Personal Possession
Mexico decriminalized marijuana in August of 2009, along with small amounts of cocaine and heroin. If anyone is caught with amounts under the “personal use limits” they will be encouraged to seek treatment, but will not be arrested or prosecuted.

Last December (2016), Mexico’s Senate voted overwhelmingly (98 to 7) to approve a medical marijuana measure. The bill must still be passed by Mexico’s lower house—the Chamber of Deputies—before it becomes law. Mexican legislators are hopeful that the legalization of cannabis is a small step toward quelling gang activity, which is wreaking havoc across the country.

In a surprise development in 2015, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of four citizens from the Mexican Society for Responsible and Tolerant Personal Use. In a 4-1 decision, the Supreme Court justices ruled that prohibiting people from consuming cannabis was unconstitutional, and, moreover, that it violated their human rights. The group filed the petition with the hope of reducing drug-related violence in Mexico, but opted for a unique approach. “We’re arguing that the government is infringing on the constitutional doctrine of the free development of personality,” said one of the members. And Mexico’s Supreme Court apparently agreed.

It is not yet clear how this ruling will play out within Mexico’s legal system, but, as The New York Times writes, “it lays the groundwork for a wave of legal actions that could ultimately rewrite” Mexico’s drug laws. The Supreme Court’s decision, moreover, delivers “a pointed challenge to the nation’s strict substance abuse laws, and [adds] its weight to the growing debate in Latin America over the costs and consequences of the war against drugs.”

United States: Considerable Progress, Along with Corruption, Hypocrisy and Disarray
Scores of states across the country have made considerable progress in advancing the availability of medical cannabis to patients in need, despite its continued status as a Schedule I drug. Eight states have now legalized cannabis for recreational use.

The federal government, however, still deeply embedded in the failed, counterproductive War on Drugs, continues to stand in the way. And its costing American taxpayers dearly. The United States now spends $50 billion a year in the War on Drugs. Yet, according to estimates from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) itself, they capture less than 10 percent of all illegal drugs. And, yet, somehow, the federal government continues to believe that $50 billion dollars a year for a 90% failure rate is a good idea.

As the states continue to move ahead with legalization, the federal government in the U.S. remains stuck in the distant past. Unfortunately, this could prove to be a hindrance for people not just in the U.S. In fact, the legalization of cannabis around the world would likely have happened decades ago, if not for the DEA. How so? Because the DEA has actively and aggressively petitioned against the federal governments of foreign nations to prevent them from passing sensible cannabis legislation.

And, now, with anachronistic drug warriors like Jeff Sessions in power, it is difficult to know what will happen next. Will the Trump administration fight against cannabis legalization by seeking to enforce international treaties? Or could the legalization of cannabis in countries like Canada finally render international drug treaties obsolete? And might this be the tipping point for the collapse of the failed War on Drugs?


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