International Law

Pushing Treaty Limits?

By Wells Bennett
Monday, October 20, 2014, 2:49 PM

Suppose the United States government helps to negotiate, and subsequently champions, certain framework treaties--ones justly viewed as imposing significant constraints on all signatories. Down the road, the United States occasionally even calls out counterparties for their looser policy innovations, when the latter push the outer boundaries of what's permitted under the treaties; a treaty-created monitoring body does likewise in its annual reporting. This pattern essentially holds year in and year out and from one presidential administration to the next.

But then the facts on the ground change radically. History shifts course. Unforeseen challenges arise. Some quite unprecedented changes insist upon--in the view of the executive branch--a more flexible approach, one in visible tension with the treaties' express (and now seemingly outdated) language.  The United States claims that instruments once thought to be airtight are in fact rather capacious, and that the treaties build in enough discretion to permit states parties to decide, unilaterally, how best to further the accords' larger aims. This in turn permits the United States to oppose any calls to revisit the treaties, and to avoid the messy, uncertain business of international negotiation and (shudder) eventually winning Senate approval.

Here's a Lawfare thought experiment: what's the body of law in play here? And what's the policy shift now confronting that law?

As to the law: I refer of course to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, as amended by the 1972 Protocol; the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances; and the 1988 Convention Against the Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (the treaty compliance body, established by the 1961 Convention, is the International Narcotics Control Board, or "INCB").  Policy-wise, I have in mind the legalization and regulation of recreational marijuana by Colorado and Washington State---and that development's conditional tolerance by the United States, in its enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act.

These are the subjects of a recent Brookings paper I co-authored with John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America.  The piece's title is "Marijuana Legalization is an Opportunity to Modernize International Drug Treaties."  Here's the gist:

If indeed Colorado and Washington do presage fundamental changes in U.S. marijuana law and policy, then the United States’ stance regarding its drug-control treaty obligations will need to measure up to the requirements of international law. The U.S. assertion of its treaty compliance on the basis of “flexible interpretation” can be questioned. The International Narcotics Control Board (“INCB” or the “Board”)—a body charged with monitoring drug-treaty compliance and assisting governments in upholding their obligations—has already made clear its view that the United States is now in contravention. If more U.S. states opt to legalize marijuana, the gap between the facts on the ground in the United States and the treaties’ proscriptions will become ever wider. The greater the gap, the greater the risk of sharper condemnation from the INCB; criticism or remedial action by drug-treaty partners and other nations; and rebukes (or, worse, shrugs) from countries that the United States seeks to call out for violating the drug treaties or other international agreements. It is a path the United States—with its strong interest in international institutions and the rule of law—should tread with great caution.

The United States therefore should begin, now, to explore options that would better align its evolving domestic approach to marijuana with its international commitments. To be clear, this essay advances no claim about the desirability of legalizing and regulating marijuana. Indeed, the logic of our argument does not hinge upon one’s views as to the wisdom of legalizing marijuana, but instead upon recognizing that legalization has become a plausible  scenario for the United States. Nor do we call for immediate, drastic treaty reforms or endorse particular approaches over others. Rather, our ambition in these pages is more modest: to encourage policy makers to rule treaty reform in as an option, rather than presumptively ruling it out.