The speed of change in terms of global drug policy over the past few years has been nothing short of remarkable. As is their way, Britain's political class has largely responded by shutting their eyes, putting their fingers in their ears and insisting on business as usual. Yet on Thursday, 30 October, Parliament will finally debate UK drug policy. This is timely because from next month, it's going to become hard for anybody to continue ignore what has been termed 'the quiet revolution.'
In the United States, a few more jurisdictions are preparing to potentially vote in favour of a radical reform to their laws on marijuana. The state of Florida and U.S territory Guam will vote on medical marijuana, while the states of Alaska and Oregon will vote on full legalisation of marijuana, as will the District of Columbia, home of the U.S government which was for so long considered to be the driving force behind an international prohibitionist drug policy. Following in the wake of Colorado and Washington's 2012 vote to regulate marijuana, this new round of ballot initiatives indicate an inconvenient truth for those who continue to insist that prohibition of drugs is the only sensible option for enlightened countries: In the nation that birthed the "War on Drugs" not only does the trend towards marijuana regulation appears irreversible, the pace of this change is quickening.
The polls indicate electoral success awaits for the initiatives in November. In Florida support for medical marijuana is polling at 70% and in Guam its 62%. The votes on full legalisation in Alaska and Oregon are a little tighter, with polls suggesting 52% and 51% support for the initiatives respectively. But the most dramatic result may come from D.C. where a poll by the Washington Post found support for an initiative to allow residents older than 21 to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and to cultivate a small number of marijuana plants at home, was polling at 63%. Success here for marijuana reform would be extraordinary. Firstly because, unlike the other campaigns which have mainly emphasised the economic benefits of marijuana legislation, D.C's campaign has concentrated on how racial disparities in the criminal justice are propelled by policing of drugs. Secondly, a decision in D.C to legalise marijuana would carry major implications for the U.S. internationally.
Since Colorado and Washington were allowed to implement their regulated marijuana markets without interference from the federal government, U.S. drug policy has found itself ensnared in a constitutional paradox, which would only be amplified should D.C. follow suit. With the U.S. already wrestling with the contradiction between allowing states to declare a substance as legal while it remains prohibited under federal law, should the ballot initiative pass, D.C. would be mandated to draft a law that could facilitate the legal possession and cultivation of marijuana. Where conflict would arise would be that as a federal district, D.C. must submit every law and budget it passes to Congress for approval. Congress would have a 30 to 60 day window to review the law and, most likely, strike it down. However, through this process, U.S. federal lawmakers would be on record as being for or against marijuana reform. If they do indeed strike down the law, then the explicit disregard of the democratic will may be politically damaging for Congress, which already has an approval rating of 14%. If they were to allow the law to stand, then the states-rights defence that has been the default offering of the U.S internationally to explain the contradiction of its domestic drug policy, would begin to look untenable.
The closing distance between U.S. national government and questions of drug policy reform may have huge ramifications in the international arena, particularly with a critical moment in global drugs policy emerging into view with UNGASS 2016. For as a testament to the misinformation that masqueraded as conventional wisdom at the time of the drafting of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, cannabis was placed and remains in the heaviest control regime in the convention, Schedule IV, alongside heroin. Questions will surely be raised by representatives from those countries who have felt heaviest the weight of the 'War on Drugs' as to how the U.S. government can tolerate regulation of a Schedule IV drug in its own states, whilst insisting upon and funding counter-narcotics programmes abroad. Emboldened Latin American states have already began to entertain alternatives to prohibition, the most notable being Uruguay, whose implementation of a legally regulated marijuana market was only eased by the contradictory position the U.S. finds itself in. Should other nations, or U.S states the size of nations like California, also have regulated marijuana by 2016, reform of the drug's position in the 1961 Single Convention may become a topic of discussion at UNGASS. As a result, reform of the treaty itself may become a topic of discussion and any possible reform would take place in a geo-political context markedly different from 1961.
This should all be at the forefront of the mind of every UK politician who attends the Parliamentary Debate on Drugs, taking place on Thursday 30 October. There is a storm coming in terms of global drug policy, those in power in the U.K. would do well to no longer continue to ignore it.