U.S. Stance Softens After Two States Legalize Pot


The legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington state has forced the U.S. government to begin standing down in the global war on drugs.

Noting the end of marijuana prohibitions in two American states, William Brownfield, the assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, said “things have changed” during a press conference at the United Nations in New York last week.

“How could I, 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?” Brownfield asked.

His remarks, first reported by InSight Crime, signify a huge shift in American policy toward other nations seeking to modernize their own drug policies. Historically, the U.S. has pressured other countries to maintain the prohibitionist approach under international drug control treaties.

Now that the U.S. has legal marijuana in its own backyard, however, the State Department and other agencies can’t really go around pressuring other countries not to do the same. At least not with a straight face.

“The first of [the drug control treaties] was drafted and enacted in 1961. Things have changed since 1961,” said Brownfield. “We must have enough flexibility to allow us to incorporate those changes into our policies.”

The U.S. and the U.N. need to “accept the fact that some countries will have very strict drug approaches,” he said. “Other countries will legalize entire categories of drugs. All these countries must work together in the international community. We must have some tolerance for those differing policies.”

But don’t mistake Brownfield for a legalizer. While acknowledging that ending prohibition is “clearly part of this international debate, and there are clearly those who believe it is the route to, if not in and of itself, the solution to the drug problem,” he said, “I am not of that persuasion.”

At least not yet. “There is no law that I am aware of, no policy, no strategy that is so perfect that it never requires adjustment or modification,” he said.

And that adjustment is ongoing right now with respect to the enforcement of marijuana laws.

“Traditionally, shall we say for the last, oh, 230 years or so … state law enforcement has been responsible for the enforcement of most federal law throughout the United States of America,” Brownfield noted. “The problem that we had to address last year was what happens when state law changes, so that state law enforcement was no longer available to enforce federal law, because marijuana in Colorado and Washington state is no longer a proscribed substance in those two states.”

“How we are applying the law has adjusted, but that’s hardly news. I mean, for God’s sake, 230 years ago slavery was permitted in the United States of America. We do adjust over time.”

And, with the upcoming UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in 2016, reformers will have a chance to adjust the global approach to drug control.

The experience of Colorado and Washington, as well as that of the nation of Uruguay, which has also legalized marijuana, will be at the forefront of those discussions.

“I myself have had a number of conversations with representatives of the government, of the Republic of Uruguay, and we have agreed informally to exchange data and exchange our own evaluations of the impact of the policies,” Brownfield said.

“At the end of the day, we have the same objective,” he said. “We want to determine as statistically and scientifically as possible the impact of legalization or regulation on our peoples.”

A world in which the U.S. State Department’s head of drug control is encouraging the honest exchange of data to bolster more effective implementation of marijuana legalization at home and abroad was completely unimaginable just a few years ago. And now it’s a reality, thanks to the voters of two U.S. states.


About Author

Tom Angell covers policy and politics for Marijuana.com. 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.)

1 Comment

  1. Lawrence Goodwin on

    On a lighter note, I’d say these comments at the United Nations represent healthy green shoots in Brownfield’s public service.

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