State Department: Obama Could Call for Global Drug Decriminalization


Just weeks ahead of the first high-level United Nations review of global drug policies in nearly two decades, a top U.S. State Department official said that other countries have the right to set their own approaches, including decriminalization. He also suggested that the Obama administration may go beyond merely tolerating other nations’ removal of criminal penalties for drugs and could specifically press for them to do so.

“One size does not fit all. Every country is not exactly the same,” William Brownfield, assistant secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, said in a press briefing on Tuesday. “And we must be tolerant of the sovereign authority of a government to develop and apply the drug strategy that is most effective for their condition and their reality.”

Heads of state and other leaders will gather next month in New York for a United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs. There, countries will seek to plot revised approaches to global substance abuse and trafficking issues, and will have the opportunity to revise three international drug control treaties that have historically threatened to stand in the way of reforms such as marijuana legalization.

But instead of merely condoning international moves away from prohibition, Brownfield indicated that the Obama administration could use the gathering to proactively encourage other countries to decriminalize drugs.

“We will call for pragmatic and concrete criminal justice reform, areas such as alternatives to incarceration or drug courts, or sentencing reform,” he said. “In other words, as President Obama has said many times publicly, to decriminalize much of the basic behavior in drug consumption in order to focus scarce law enforcement resources on the greater challenge of the large transnational criminal organizations.”

While it is unknown which exact positions the U.S. and other countries will take at UNGASS, Brownfield seems to feel that explicit reform of the treaties is not needed in order to accommodate new approaches.

“The conventions, as I mentioned, do have a substantial amount of discretionary authority built in them,” he said. “They do not require, in the text of the convention, the criminalization of the consumption of a product. A nation can reach its own determination there, so long as it does it in a way that is consistent with the objective of reducing the harm caused to societies, communities, and individuals of the product.”

At the last UNGASS, in 1998, countries came together under the slogan, “A Drug Free World. We Can Do It!”

Since that time, four U.S. states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis, as has the nation of Uruguay. Canada’s prime minister has pledged to do so, and Mexico is making major marijuana law reform moves, and so are other countries.

But while calling the U.S. a “microcosm of the world” and pointing to the Obama administration’s tolerance of state-level reforms, Brownfield said that “our objective remains that of limiting and eventually eliminating the use of marijuana in the United States of America because of its harm and its dangers.”

The comments on respecting other countries’ differing approaches to drug policy echo similar remarks Brownfield made in October 2014, but have greater significance coming just weeks ahead of the UNGASS. Along the same lines, another State Department official was asked last November about moves to legalize marijuana in Canada and Mexico and said, “It’s up to the people of each nation to decide policies.”

Brownfield also weighed in last year on Jamaica’s recent decriminalization of marijuana, saying, “we must have tolerance and accept that different countries will address their drug issues in different ways so long as they are committed to the fundamental purposes of [international drug control treaties] and that is to reduce the damage, to reduce the harm and eventually to reduce the abuse of these products.”

In the new comments, which were first reported by Samuel Oakford of VICE, Brownfield called the global debate about drug policy reform “as strong and intense on this issue as I have ever seen it in my more than 60 years of life on this planet and my more than 37 years as a diplomat in the service of the United States of America.”

About Author

Tom Angell covers policy and politics for Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit organization Marijuana Majority, which works to ensure that elected officials and the media treat legalization as a serious, mainstream issue. Marijuana Majority led the effort to get the U.S. Conference of Mayors to pass a resolution telling the federal government to respect state marijuana laws, and orchestrated the first-ever endorsement for marijuana legalization by a U.S. Supreme Court justice (John Paul Stevens). Previously, Tom worked for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (All organizations are listed for identification purposes only.)

  • John Oates

    With 75% of the people in the USA want our drug laws to change ..why is it taking congress and the house to do what we the people want them to do … AND THEN THEY ASK WHY WE ARE SO MADE AT CONGRESS AND THE HOUSE… your do doing the work we put you in to do … so in 2017 you all must go that keep voting not to change our drug laws.. and this is why the next man in the white house will be BERNIE SANDERS . ( and a lot of new congress men in office)

    • StAugBassMan

      Just totally and willfully ignoring the will of the people! How do they get away with this crap! These people elected are supposed to be representing our position, not imparting their own!

  • Barry Jordan

    Drugs have always been a health matter, not a criminal one, it’s nice to see the world learning this obvious truth but change is taking a painfully long time and lives are destroyed every day while politicians drag their feet.

  • Gerhard Balthasar

    I think there is too much hope and faith for a positive outcome of the UNGASS meeting. Nearly 200 countries will meet, where only around 10 or 20 have a changed view on some drugs. I think they will not discuss reform but how they can reach the goal of a drug free world until 2030.

  • 1Bugler1

    “Brownfield said that “our objective remains that of limiting and eventually eliminating the use of marijuana in the United States of America because of its harm and its dangers.” So what you are saying is that no matter how much progress we have made and will make in the future, the plan is to eliminate the safest, most beneficial “drug” known to man. And for what reason? “Harm and dangers?????” The masterpiece in brainwashing that is cannabis prohibition can not and MUST NOT continue!!!!

    • StAugBassMan

      I saw that line and almost spit my coffee! Is this dude serious? Eliminate it? What the hell planet is he on? Obviously he’s not keeping up! They have to get off of this mantra for crying out loud!

      • dyrwolf

        He’s law enforcement. What do you expect?


      Pardon me, but caffeine is the safest, most beneficial drug known to man. Not marijuana.

      That being said, I think EVERY drug should be decriminalized and eventually legalized. Yes, all of them.

      • joeboken

        Caffeine in the morning, Marijuana in the evening, can’t we all just get along?

      • lovingc

        Wrong, caffeine is adictive.

      • Charles Rebbel

        Here, here! Let the people decide. As for caffeine, most beneficial is arguably true, but caffeine is known to have marked levels of toxicity that aren’t recognized in THC.

  • The change in the Controlled substance act by Congress in HR 639 along with FDA approval of cannabis extracts as schedule 3 termed, “naturally derived Dronabinol” published Nov. 1, 2010 in the federal registry will open import of this blockaded medicine to Georgia for our state sponsored patient response research program to determine LABEL.

  • Smokedawg OG

    “It’s up to the people of each nation to decide policies.”

    If that was the case, it would have never been illegal… And George W Bush would have never been the president.

  • Tim T

    End cannabis prohibition in 2016 easily! ALL 435 House of Rep & 34 senate seats – 87% of ALL congressional seats are up for election on Nov 8 2016. Replace all of them with only cannabis supporters and cannabis will be freed in 2017!! Join the movement today!!

  • Patricia Silverman

    sorry that is still prohibition “we must have tolerance and accept that different countries will address their drug issues in different ways so long as they are committed to the fundamental purposes of [international drug control treaties] and that is to reduce the damage, to reduce the harm and eventually to reduce the abuse of these products.”, harm and abuse the same old cry except if we tell the truth the harm and damage are caused by that attitude. maybe its time you left public service, prohibitionist attitudes are an ideology and have no place in a scientific world view

    • lovingc

      The only harm from canaabis is the laws against it. Destroying families and creating criminals with the stroke of a pen.

  • Joseph Wisgirda

    This represents a move towards a sensible, more thought-out policy.

    They still have a ways to go in terms of accepting that Marijuana is potent medicine.

    But least they had the sense and decency to change things to allow other nations in the world the freedom to make their own choices, rather than having to accept our choice or face losing our trade, and also face the possibility of invasion by our armed forces. By not forcing the War On Drugs Military Industrial Complex down the throat of every country in the world, perhaps this will be a safer, saner place.
    Better. Not perfect. But better.

    • Patricia Silverman

      cannabis is biologically a plant, botanically a herb and biblically food, anything more then this is still prohibitionist language.

  • Saturned

    What exactly are the harm and dangers of marijuana?

  • Krista Hubbard

    I’m not caring because it’s still moving forward and on 420 im gonna do like snoop dogg and smoke like a broken stove haha

  • paulvonhartmann

    “Brownfield said that “our objective remains that of limiting and eventually eliminating the use of marijuana in the United States of America because of its harm and its dangers.””

    Obsolete, cognitive dissonance in view of predominant contemporary medical and scientific consensus. It is just an embarrassment to read such drivel coming from a person in a position of authority.

    What he should say is that their objective has changed to accommodate 21st century advances in Cannabis therapeutics, nutrition, ecology and industry that reveal the herb as essential, mankind’s functional interface within the critically out-of-balance systems of the planet.

    Understating the “strategic resource” value of Cannabis is the same as lying about its supposed “dangers.” Accountability for such statements, demonstrating incompetence in leadership, is lacking.

  • Jeremiah Emmerson

    You look at all the violence in the world…and it always comes down to a few things:

    1- Oil and Resource Control
    2- Religious Clashes
    3- Drug Control

    If we could fix #1 and #3, maybe we could teach #2, how to have more compassion.

  • John Oates

    IN the USA 75% of voting people want to stop this war on drugs that is just putting our people in jail for money… MARIJUANA has not killed any one in all of man kind… so putting some one in jail for smoking it is dumb. JUST look how many people die from just beer… war on drugs must be stopped if we change our so you can buy it in stores just like beer this would keep it out of the hands of your kid better… people just look at what it cost to keep some one in jail stop wasting our tax dollars on this so called war on drugs..