Ask someone today what they think about drug policy in the U.S. and you will likely hear something about the legalization movement for marijuana, which has taken center stage in the drug reform debate.
Seven states and the District of Columbia have now approved measures to allow for recreational use, each with their own regulatory model: Colorado, Washington, Alaska, California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts. As of today, medical use is legal in 28 states. In 2014, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize recreational marijuana under a heavily government-regulated model.
The growing trend to legalize should not come as a surprise as half of American adults have now tried marijuana, including the 8% who smoked some in the past month. The legalization movement itself goes all the way back to 1969 when 76 million baby boomers came of age, catapulting the counterculture, including marijuana, into the mainstream. Although 50% of Americans favored marijuana’s legalization by 1980, it fell to 27% six years later. Since then, it has been on a steady upward trend with 54% supporting legalization, including 59% of Democrats, 58% of Independents and 39% of Republicans, according to a recent Pew Research Center Survey. The views towards recreational legalization among millennials are even more striking, cutting across party lines, with 63% of Republicans in favor and 77% of Democrats supporting it.
Despite the trend to legalize state-by-by state, marijuana remains on the U.S. federal government’s list of ‘controlled substances’ as an illegal narcotic. Even though the U.S. Department of Justice has indicated it is reconsidering whether it will enforce federal penalties, marijuana legalization still violates UN drug treaties, primarily the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. This contradiction in U.S. federal government policy was one of primary points raised by other countries at the UNGASS 2016. To address this discrepancy and allay the some of the discontent by some Latin American countries who have floated reforming drug policies to address their primary concerns such as drug-trafficking related violence, the U.S. government has implied that it now will allow for increased flexibility for member countries’ interpretation of the three major drug treaties [see the 1961 U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs]. Many questions remain how this will evolve in practice and whether there will be any change in official stated U.S. policy with the Trump administration.