Signaling a continued shift in U.S. posture toward drug policy reform in other countries, a federal official said on Thursday that Canada and Mexico should be able to legalize marijuana if they want to.
“It’s up to the people of each nation to decide policies,” John Kirby, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of State, said in a press briefing. “And in this case, it’s up to the people of Mexico to decide which drug policies are most appropriate for their country within the framework of international law.”
Kirby was responding to a journalist who asked about a Mexican Supreme Court ruling on Wednesday which could result in the legalization of marijuana. The reporter also cited the swearing in this week of new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who pledged during his election campaign to end cannabis prohibition “right away” after taking office.
Historically, the U.S. has pressured other countries to maintain a prohibitionist approach under international drug control treaties. But under the Obama administration, as voters in a growing number of U.S. states have legalized marijuana within the nation’s own borders, the State Department has taken a more respectful approach based on an evolving interpretation of the treaties which sees flexibility for countries to move away from prohibition.
Referring to those treaties, Kirby said that the U.S. is “firmly committed to the three UN drug conventions,” adding that they are “the foundation of international cooperation for dealing with all aspects of the drug problem.”
He noted the U.S.’s view that “the conventions allow for a degree of flexibility on how member-states implement their obligations, particularly with respect to drug use, and the conventions anticipate variations in national legal frameworks.”
The remarks are in line with what other top State officials have said in the recent past, but are particularly notable in the context of the recent big moves happening both north and south of the U.S.’s borders.
Last year, William Brownfield, the assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs said, “The first of [the drug control treaties]was drafted and enacted in 1961. Things have changed since 1961. We must have enough flexibility to allow us to incorporate those changes into our policies.”
He asked, “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?”
(Those remarks were made before Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C. joined Colorado and Washington State in voting to legalize marijuana.)
In separate remarks earlier this year, Brownfield, referring to Jamaica’s move to decriminalize marijuana, said “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.”
The State Department’s increasingly respectful view of drug policy reform abroad clearly stems from U.S. voters in a growing number of states forcing the issue by enacting change at the ballot box: If the U.S. can’t keep legal marijuana out of its own backyard, how can federal officials, with a straight face, tell other nations that they can’t end prohibition too?
The growing boldness of international leaders to champion moves away from the war on drugs is itself spurred by a realization that the U.S. apparently will no longer dangle threats to withdraw foreign aid, for example, in front of other nations that want to enact reforms.
And the fact that Canada and Mexico are now seriously moving toward legalizing marijuana is itself likely to bolster efforts to legalize marijuana in even more U.S. states.
All of these factors have created a feedback loop of sorts where each new jurisdiction that enacts reform propels efforts in nearby places, to the point where marijuana may be legal across all of North America (and perhaps beyond) way before many observers thought would be possible.