In drug war, failed old ideas never die

By Bernd Debusmann
February 26, 2010

Here’s a stern warning to the U.S. states of Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. A United Nations body is displeased with your liberal medical marijuana laws. Very displeased.

The U.N. rarely takes issue with the internal affairs of member states, and even less with those of the United States. But that’s what the International Narcotics Control Board has just done in its latest annual report, published this week. Without mentioning by name the 14 American states where marijuana is legal for medical purposes, the 149-page report says:

“While the consumption and cultivation of cannabis, except for scientific purposes, are illegal activities according to federal law in the United States, several states have enacted laws that provide for the ‘medical use’ of cannabis. The control measures applied in those states for the cultivation of cannabis plants and the production, distribution and use fall short of the control requirements laid down in the 1961 Convention (on narcotic drugs.)

“The Board is deeply concerned that those insufficient control provisions have contributed substantially to the increase in illicit cultivation and abuse of cannabis in the United States. In addition, that development sends a wrong message to other countries.” The Board’s concern doesn’t end here. It is equally worried over “the ongoing discussion in several states on legalizing and taxing the ‘recreational’ use of cannabis.”

California, the most populous state in the U.S., stands out in that discussion. In mid-February, a California legislator, Tom Ammiamo, introduced a bill that would tax and regulate marijuana (by most estimates the state’s largest cash crop by far) much in the same way as alcohol. In addition, California backers of marijuana legalization say they have collected more than 700,000 signatures for a ballot initiative likely to be voted on in November.

There’s not the slightest hint in the U.N. report of rapidly growing support for more liberal laws on marijuana, the world’s most widely-used illicit drug. The latest U.S. poll on the issue, in January, showed that eight out of ten Americans support legalizing marijuana for medical use and nearly half are in favor of legalizing the drug, in small quantities for personal use, altogether.

Countries that have done that come in for harsh rebuke from the Control Board, which singles out Mexico, Argentina and Brazil for having sent “the wrong message” by passing legislation that takes the crime out of drug use and replaces prison sentences with treatment and education programs.


In the eyes of two liberal think tanks, the Washington Office on Latin America and the Transnational Institute, lecturing the U.S., Mexico, Argentina and Brazil on the way they handle drug use are way off the mark. The rebuke, said a joint statement by the two groups, “clearly oversteps the INCB’s mandate and constitutes unwarranted intrusion into these country’s sovereign decision-making.”

The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs placed marijuana in the most restrictive category, alongside heroin (as does the U.S. federal government) and for years was seen as a major obstacle to domestic reform in signatory countries. But a follow-up treaty in 1988 provided a measure of flexibility on whether or not drug possession should be treated as a criminal offence.

In the United States, for decades the spiritual home of rigid marijuana prohibitionists, President Barack Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, last October issued new policy guidelines that marked a milestone in a long-running dispute over whether federal law trumps state law on matters of marijuana. Holder announced that the Justice Department would stop raiding medical marijuana facilities set up under state law.

That was the most high-profile move on drug policy so far in the presidency of Obama, who is on record saying that “the war on drugs has been an utter failure. We need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws…” He made the remark  in 2004, when he was running for a seat in the U.S. senate. Speaking about drug policies as a whole, not only on marijuana, as a presidential candidate, Obama said he believed in “shifting the paradigm, shifting the model so that we can focus more on the public health approach.”

In the long-running global dispute over drug strategy, that means treating addicts not as criminals but as patients who deserve care in a public health system. To hear Obama’s drug czar, former Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowski, tell it, that shift is underway. But is it really?

The answer is no, judging from just-released highlights of the national drug control budget for Fiscal Year 2011, which begins in October. It provides for $15.5 billion in overall spending, a 3.5 percent increase over 2010, and allots vastly more money to law enforcement ($ 9.9 billion) than to addiction treatment and preventive measures ($5.6 billion).

Like drug control budgets under President George W. Bush, the figures do not include the vast cost of arresting drug offenders and putting them behind bars, a practice that has helped turn the United States into the world’s biggest jailer. Factoring in those costs would show that 73 percent of overall spending goes to law enforcement and controlling the supply of drugs, according to John Walsh, a senior expert at WOLA.

Aaron Houston, director of government relations at the Marijuana Policy Project, sees the budget as evidence of recycled Bush policies rather than the paradigm shift Obama promised.

It’s Bush wine in Obama bottles.


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Broken logic 101:

“If people keep committing an action which is a crime, then the correct solution is to stop that action being a crime. Then they will no longer be criminals.”

Posted by Anon86 | Report as abusive


You make very intelligent points. Very factual. Also those facts are based on abusive use of the plant. Keep in mind also, that in all of recorded history not one single human being has ever died of marijuana poisoning. It is impossible to smoke yourself to death.

In cultures where it was accepted it was said to be used for good health and long life. And many people who use it responsibly would agree. If the points you are attempting make about the health issues are intended as justification for keeping it marijuana illegal, you will be disappointed to know that the argument carries no weight for that purpose.

Alcohol is so addictive that a person under its grip cannot simply stop drinking. Doing that would kill them. Marijuana poses no such danger. Yet alcohol is legal and marijuana is not, (drink responsibly). There are studies that show cannabinoids may actually protect against cancer. So let’s not try to paint a picture of this substance as being some kind of demon weed.

Tobacco kills people by the millions all over the world. And to spite aggressive educational campaigning in this country, tobacco still kills millions abroad. But it’s legal and very profitable. The only groups that have anything to gain from keeping marijuana illegal are drug cartels both legal and illegal, alcohol producers, and tobacco producers.

Meanwhile legalization could open up markets in counseling, education, medicine, manufacturing, and a whole host of technologies. But for the sake of political pride people in control refuse to acknowledge the truth that the war on drugs is a failed endeavor. We have real problems facing us and this pursuit to save political face is getting in the way.

Posted by Benny_Acosta | Report as abusive

Marijuana is an herb and according to Genesis everyone has a
God given right to use it despite the Establishment and their evil gun toting pigs.

Posted by snitzel | Report as abusive

Good analysis. In this case the U.N. is both overstepping it’s boundaries and wrong in its conclusions.
The question is how to change the current irrational U.S. drug policy. I thought that voting for Obama would be a step in the right direction but in this issue and many others have been disappointed by our President’s actions. Voters in this country do not really have a choice at the ballot box…they can vote for “crazy” or “slightly less crazy”. The two-party system ensures that any other vote is wasted. No wonder so few in this country bother to vote.

Posted by jjg | Report as abusive

Cali099, Yes, Cali, I do know how stupid it is to preach about the effects of Marijuana to people who want to use it. I learned that when I was completing my undergraduate degree in BioChemistry at the University of California and was a volunteer at the local free drug counseling clinic doing drug testing and counseling.
I learned more about the futility of “preaching” after I graduated from law school and for 15 years volunteered part of my time as a supervising lawyer for a domestic violence center helping women get out of domestic violence situations. Over 90% of the thousands of clients I saw reported drug and alcohol use as part of the problems. Alcohol and Marijuana were the most common drugs. In my experience, preaching is not very effective.
My point was not to preach, but simply to state basic known medical information about the biochemistry of marijuana and the known effects. Much is not known.
I do not believe that we should waste resources on a losing drug war, but advocates for the legal use of marijuana are not lobbying for the right to work or free speech or some lofty goal. You simply want to get high and alter your brain chemistry, and very few advocates want to intelligently discuss the economic, social and medical costs of using this drug.
I saw the same type of thinking with alcohol abusers.

I agree with you about Fox News. I use to watch it and eventually found myself marching around the room singing German marching songs and shouting “Death to Liberals”.
Luckily my family did an intervention and I switched to CNN. However, I then would sit in a lotus position and say UMMMMMM for hours after the news.
Finally I switched to watching the crystal meth of news, Keith Olbermann. I started throwing things at the end of his program when he throws the papers at the camera. One night I threw the TV across the room. Since then I stay away from those addictive programs and get all my news from feeds from news services.
To get high, I watch my favorite movie. The Big Lebowsky. Call me The Dude or Duder, or El Duderino.
Chill Man.

To Benny: Thanks for your thoughtful response. I am aware of most of the recent scientific research on marijuana, and I agree that marijuana is not the demon drug. That would be crystal meth. I also agree that legalalization may have some benefits including freeing law enforcement to work on other problems and the ability to tax the users and perhaps more research.
I thought I made it clear that I was ok with legalizing the marijuana use, I just want the users to pay the freight for the fall out. Based on my limited experience at the university and as a lawyer working with families who were affected by drug use, including alcohol and marijuana, I would much prefer we spend time, and money trying to discourage the use by education, and taxing the use heavily to pay for the damage to society. Raise taxes on tobacco, which is more addictive as well.

Posted by JackAllan | Report as abusive

On the alcohol vs marijuana discussion, here’s a useful link: 09/07/23/driven-to-drink-by-marijuana-la ws/

Posted by Komment | Report as abusive

I find it ironic this was posted the same day as an article detailing the connection between prolonged use and psychosis.

However, I am in favor of all victimless crimes being legalized, and I agree that the UN is butting in.

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive

First of all, the UN needs to stop sticking their noses in States’ business. I understand that it is difficult for that opportunistic cartel of European aristocrats, Russian mobsters, and Asian communists to understand that our States laws often take (or at least should take) precedence over Federal laws, but they should be sent a very clear message by the aforementioned States to BUTT OUT.
Second, I grow tired of the Marijuana users and their endless claims of how great Marijuana is compared to other drugs, how misunderstood it is, etc. Whether Marijuana is good or bad has no place in this discussion at all because the real crux of the issue is the Imperial Federal Government wasting mega sums of taxpayer money on a victimless crime. Let’s talk about that and keep the discussion moving forward. Dope smokers and their ridiculous claims only stain the debate and turn many people away from our viewpoint. In addition, I am tired of being associated with pot heads when this topic of discussion arises among my peers. So, I am asking the pro pot smokers out there to please stop hijacking this discussion whenever it comes up. This is not (or should not be) a forum on the merits of recreational Marijuana use.

Posted by Zacs | Report as abusive

Legalized Drugs? Just watch ABC news commercials to see the latest designer drugs. You can’t find beer, wine, or whiskey ads. Just drug ads. The money used for the drug war will help to provide health care for children, but the congress would just say no.

Posted by fred5407 | Report as abusive

Gee, Prohibition in the 20′s was such a smashing success! The War on Drugs has been such a valedictorian victory! Why stop something that has done so much for the triumph of Western Civilization!

Posted by EQReynolds | Report as abusive

There have been some thoughtful posts on this topic.

Personally, I’ve used pot daily for over 30 years. I graduated with a 3.8 GPA, learned to build computers before you could buy one pre-built, and have never drawn a single unemployment check. I make over $50K a year as a skilled laborer, where I have never filed a workman’s comp claim.

I’ve held the same job for over 16 years. During that time, I’ve missed a 14 days of work – 5 days for knee surgery, and 9 days for a seasonal flu which developed into viral bronchitis and nearly killed me. Neither was work-related.

About a third of my co-workers use pot, and about two-thirds use alcohol. The small percentage who abuse one or both are, in general, more accident-prone, less productive, more often tardy and far more aggressive. They tend to have very short careers. The vast majority are adults who don’t drink or smoke before coming to work, pay their bills and their taxes, and are – in general – a great bunch of folks to work with. Many of my co-workers are also my closest friends. About half of my friends smoke pot, and the rest don’t care that we do, as long as we don’t care that they don’t smoke.

This isn’t a scientific study, but based on my observations:

1. Drugs are not the underlying problem. Alcohol doesn’t “make” someone violent, and pot doesn’t “make” someone irresponsible. People are who they are, and drugs merely peel away the outer facade to expose the inner person.

2. I have never met a pot smoker who didn’t try alcohol first.

3. People who sell large quantities of pot want to keep it illegal, and therefore expensive, as long as possible.

4. Hemp fiber, hemp paper, and hemp-seed oil are very attractive alternatives to petroleum-based fiber, wood-pulp paper, and cottonseed oil. (Fact: The Model-A originally ran on biodiesel from 100% pure hemp-seed oil.)

5. Numerous studies by the Federal Gov’t and others have pointed out that drug and/or alcohol treatment costs far less and works far better than incarceration.

6. I’ve lost dozens of friends over the years to cigarettes and alcohol. My stepfather died from cihrrosis of the liver, two co-workers died of alcohol poisoning, dozens have been killed by drunk drivers or while driving drunk, several have succombed to cancer and heart failure tied to drinking and smoking. No one I’ve known, nor anyone any of my friends have known, has ever died from smoking pot.

7. At least 75% of all the adults I know have tried marijuana. Of those who don’t smoke, none have ever reported feeling “addicted” to pot. They – in their own words – “just gave it up,”, or “didn’t care for it.”

Make of these what you will – I made my own decision long ago, and I’ll stand by it.

Posted by rhoadie | Report as abusive

I want to know this, if California passes the vote of legalizing marijuana .. will it be top “primo” grade or dirt weed (stuff so disgusting and poor grade won’t get a fly high)?
I’m not really in support for the legalizing of marijuana for recreational use .. but for medical reasons yes!

Posted by MetalVixxen | Report as abusive

I am a 47 year old mother of an 18 year old college student and business owner. I have recently gone back to college to earn my BCIS and I hear a lot from the kids in my classes and I have to say very nearly every single one is all for legalization of marijuana. These kids are smart kids, the classes they take are not easy. The general opinion is that the money we spend on fighting it is ridiculous and the laws that support the fight are antiquated.
I won’t quote any more facts or figures, that has obviously already been done. I will say it is far past the time for marijuana legalization. What we are doing here in California is none of the UN’s business. We are wasting millions upon millions of dollars on the marijuana drug war that could be spent on far better things. It’s just a plant! An herb that has great medicinal value that could be used to generate a great deal of money for programs and other things we need, instead of taking the money out of our pockets that we cant’ afford to lose. I am not a kid or a pothead but I am all for the legalization and taxation of marijuana. In the long run it will save many lives from being ruined by incarceration for such a ridiculous reason.
As for the ridiculous claims that legalizing marijuana will increase crime or turn our state into a bunch of pot smoking hippies, well that is a hilarious yet hysterical statement that comes from those who only read and quote facts from science or medical journals and have never lived in the real world. Limber up people!
Relax and enjoy your lives! Get out and walk among the people who enjoy the marijuana cafe’s and talk to them.
They are just people like you and me. As for the fed and UN….KEEP YOUR NOSE OUT OF OUR STATE!…We don’t need your help on these kinds of matters. As for the ridiculous raids on medical marijuana facilities.STOP IT! really…

Posted by charlie1002 | Report as abusive

And why are we going by laws enacted in 1961?

Posted by charlie1002 | Report as abusive