This week diplomats from around the world met at the U.N. to discuss drug policy, and for the first time at one of these gatherings the United States distinguished itself by pointing the way out of the war on drugs instead of beating the drum to continue it. In my latest Forbes column, I suggest some lessons other countries can learn from marijuana legalization in the U.S.:
When the Canadian Parliament considered decriminalizing marijuana possession in 2003, U.S. officials loudly objected. They complained that the proposed reform would betray the anti-drug cause, worried that it would encourage drug tourism and facilitate marijuana smuggling, and threatened to respond with a border crackdown that would impede trade and travel between the two countries.
Canadian legislators got the message. The marijuana bill, which would have made possessing up to 15 grams (about half an ounce) of marijuana a civil offense punishable by a fine and reduced the penalties for home cultivation of up to seven plants, never got a vote.
Thirteen years later, those reforms look timid compared to the laws approved by four U.S. states, which remove all penalties for possession and (in three states) home cultivation while allowing commercial production and distribution. Even the nation's capital lets adults 21 or older grow, possess, and share marijuana without penalties, although pot shops are on hold because of congressional objections. As Canada's new government proceeds with its plans to legalize marijuana, it is following America's example.
That striking reversal reflects a new reality that was underscored by this week's U.N. General Assembly special session on "the world drug problem," the first such gathering since 1998. The United States, which used to be the country pushing others to be tough on drugs, is now at the forefront of reform. As a result, instead of portraying any deviation from prohibitionist orthodoxy as a grave violation of international obligations, the U.S. is supporting a flexible interpretation of drug control treaties that leaves room even for bold changes like drug legalization.
What can other countries learn from the U.S. experience with marijuana legalization? While it's too early to draw firm conclusions, a recent report from the Colorado Department of Public Safety (CDPS) suggests a few tentative observations.