The Beginning of the End of the Drug War

Is Pot a Human Right?

Source F. Ellingvag/Corbis

Why you should care

Because now you don’t have to feel guilty that you inhaled. 

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Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.

Like a lot of wars, the war on drugs has long had problems of credibility and coherence. But of late, discontent with global drug policy seems to have reached an all-time, er, high. 

For the first time in history, a majority of Americans say they support making marijuana legal. Last year, Colorado, Washington and Uruguay went ahead and did it. More jurisdictions, inside and outside the U.S., are considering following their lead. Meanwhile, a rift is growing at the United Nations. Its International Narcotics Control Board accuses stoner states of violating drug treaties, while drug-producing states say prohibition abets paramilitary groups

Last year, Human Rights Watch—one of the world’s most respected authorities—declared drug criminalization inherently at odds with human rights standards.


It’s not quite the same thing as calling pot a human right, as we’ll explain in a moment, but it does signal an important shift. For years, the human rights case against decriminalization was confined to college dorm rooms and the pages of High Times magazine.

All this leads us to wonder: Might the end of the war on drugs be nigh?

Before you ask just what we at OZY have been smoking, consider this: The United States dominated the drafting and enforcement of the decades-old international treaties that control drugs. The upshot of those treaties is zero tolerance. But legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington has made the moral case for zero tolerance hazier. 

2 men in white lab coats behind counter looking at a laptop

Employees at the Medicine Man marijuana retail store in Denver, Colorado

“The consensus that existed for a number of decades about the basic principles of drug control at a global level—that consensus is gone,” says Martin Jelsma, a political scientist and reform advocate at the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam.

Countries like Mexico and Colombia, which have borne the brunt of the drug war’s ill effects, are growing increasingly restless for reform. The Global Commission on Drug Policy, on whose roster sit Davos habitués like Kofi Annan and Paul Volcker, has spoken out repeatedly against the drug war; and last year, the Organization of American States contemplated alternative forms of drug regulation.

It’s one thing to say there’s a right against torture; it’s another to say you’ve got a right to get high.

In 2016, the United Nations General Assembly is slated to take a hard look at global drug policy. In preparation, proponents of reform are gearing up for battle against staunch prohibitionists. The latter include China and Iran (both of which use the death penalty to punish drug users), Russia and, formerly, the United States.

plastic containers of pot on shelves with labels on them

Medical marijuana products on display in Seattle, Washington

Although there is a decent argument that federalism means the United States hasn’t violated its drug treaty obligations, the narcs—er, standard bearers—claim otherwise.

“These developments [marijuana legalization in Washington and Colorado] do pose a very serious challenge to the international drug control system, and they represent a grave threat to public health,” said Raymond Yans, president of the International Narcotics Control Board, last month.

Other countries seem to perceive legalization the way Yans does—as license to smoke up. Observers see the start of a “domino effect,” with so many cannabis-reform initiatives taking off that “it’s difficult to keep track of them,” says Jelsma. The Transnational Institute is currently monitoring decriminalization or legalization initiatives in Jamaica, Morocco, Belize, Chile and Mexico. All of them are taking place in the absence of “the heavy hand of the United States that normally immediately pushes them down,” Jelsma says.

Historically, human rights arguments for drug decriminalization have gotten little traction. “It’s one thing to say there’s a right against torture; it’s another to say you’ve got a right to get high,” says Robert Mikos, a Vanderbilt law professor who studies domestic drug laws.

Unless you’re harming someone else, what you’re doing with your own body is not something you should go to prison for.

— Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, deputy director at Human Rights Watch

But the global trend toward marijuana legalization has breathed new life into the human rights case. “I think we’ve seen some opening in the U.S. to consider the human rights implications of continuing to go after drug production and distribution in a very aggressive way,” says Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, U.S. program deputy director at Human Rights Watch. She points to recent guidance from the Justice Department, which suggests that alternative approaches to drug regulation might be more effective at protecting human rights and combating crime.

Human Rights Watch’s 2014 annual report included an essay by Sánchez-Moreno arguing that “drug criminalization was inherently inconsistent with human rights.” She wrote:

After much discussion, the organization in 2013 adopted a policy calling on governments to decriminalize all personal use and possession of drugs. We also urged them to consider—and eventually adopt—alternative policies on the drug trade to reduce the enormous human rights costs of current approaches.

In other words: Criminalizing drugs violates human rights. There are two aspects to Human Rights Watch’s argument. First, criminalizing individual use and possession is, per se, a violation of human rights. “Unless you’re harming someone else, what you’re doing with your own body is not something you should go to prison for,” says Sánchez-Moreno. Harming others while under the influence, however, is a different matter.

Second, existing global drug policies have engendered massive rights violations, she says. They’ve made illicit drug markets more profitable, fueling armed groups and criminal organizations that engage in violence and corruption. In the United States, they’ve led to disproportionate sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and exploding rates of incarceration, especially for black men. 

There are other human rights arguments to make on behalf of drug decriminalization, including cultural rights arguments. In parts of India, cannabis is used for traditional or medicinal purposes, and criminalization has forced people to “go underground with their centuries-old traditions and religious practices,” says Jelsma. 

To be sure, cultural rights occupy some of the lowest tiers of the human rights hierarchy. However they fare when the U.N. takes up drug reform arguments in 2016, one thing is clear to advocates like Jelsma: “The repressive prohibitionists who were trying to discipline the whole world into incarcerating everybody—they lost,” he says.


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