Fatal attraction: Brownfield's flexibility doctrine and global drug policy reform
This article points out that although new 'four pillars' approach has received some positive responses, its attractiveness is superficial and there are important reasons to be cautious.26 Nov 2014
State-level cannabis reforms, which gathered steam this month, have exposed the inability of the United States to abide by the terms of the legal bedrock of the global drug control system; the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. This is something that should force a much-needed conversation about reform to long-standing international agreements. But while ostensibly 'welcoming' the international drug policy reform debate, it is a conversation the US federal government actually wishes to avoid. The result is a new official position on the UN drugs treaties that, despite its seductively progressive tone, serves only to sustain the status quo and may cause damage beyond drug policy.
The 1961 Single Convention has been massively influential. Almost every state in the world is bound to prohibit cultivation, trade and possession of cannabis and a range of other substances such as coca and opium for anything but medical and scientific purposes. Wherever you are, your drugs laws are probably modeled on this agreement.
The United States has been a staunch defender of this legal regime. The treaties are central to its foreign policy on drugs, including in Latin America. But at home the government has been clear that it will not trample on the will of voters with regard to cannabis, even though this places it in breach of the 1961 Convention. So the US faces a predicament; a treaty breach it does not wish to admit within a system it wishes to protect.
The response is the new 'four pillars' approach, set out by Ambassador William Brownfield (Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement):
Respect the integrity of the existing UN Drug Control Conventions...
Accept flexible interpretation of those conventions...
Tolerate different national drug policies...accept the fact that some countries will have very strict drug approaches; other countries will legalize entire categories of drugs...
Combat and resist criminal organizations
Brownfield's statement received some positive responses, welcoming it as a breakthrough in drug policy reform. However, its attractiveness is superficial and there are important reasons to be cautious.
For US foreign policy on drugs the four pillars make sense in the short term. Through these pillars, the US can appear to embrace reform discussions while changing nothing of substance. US approaches to Latin America that have dominated US attentions can carry on as before. The US gets to continue to have presence in places it has no business being other than to fight the drug trade - the fourth pillar of this 'new' approach.
In addition, in defending the 'integrity of the treaties', the US can go on using those treaties as a disciplinary tool against producer and transit nations in the region. Under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, when a country does not fulfill the requirements of the international drugs conventions, the President determines that the country has 'failed demonstrably' to meet its obligations, which can lead to sanctions.
Bolivia received such a determination again only a few weeks ago. While explaining the rationale for a more 'flexible interpretation' Brownfield said, 'Things have changed since 1961'. However, the Presidential Determination on Bolivia stressed that the 'frameworks established by the U.N. conventions are as applicable to the contemporary world as when they were negotiated and signed by the vast majority of U.N. member states'.