Until recently it seemed nothing would disturb the international consensus that the best way to deal with narcotic and psychotropic drugs is to ban them.
Codified in a United Nations convention, this policy has proven impervious to decades of failure. Drug consumption has not, in most parts of the world, fallen. Prohibition inflicts appalling damage through the spread of organized crime, the needless deaths of addicts exposed to adulterated drugs and the mass incarceration of young men.
Now a whiff of change is in the air. After referenda last November, officials in two American states, Colorado and Washington, are pondering how to implement their voters' decisions to legalize marijuana. A dozen countries in Europe and the Americas have deemed the possession of some drugs no longer to be a criminal offence. A few Latin American presidents want a wholesale rethinking of the "war" on the supply and trafficking of drugs.
Several forces are bringing change. First, public attitudes are starting to shift. Americans have seen the widespread availability of marijuana for ostensibly medical use has not led to mass addiction. Polls show that around half now support full legalization. In Britain, a recent poll found a similar proportion in favour of decriminalizing cannabis possession.
Latin America is also tiring of trying to suppress production. That is not surprising: In several countries the death toll associated with efforts to combat the drug business has risen to the level of a conventional war. Mexicans complain the notion of "shared responsibility" proclaimed by international bureaucrats means their people get killed whereas the United States, with its soft gun laws, arms the traffickers, launders their money and consumes their product.
Meanwhile, changes in the drug market are undermining the idea the problem can be dealt with only at an international level. Synthetic drugs, such as amphetamines and ecstasy, are now more widely used than cocaine and heroin. Scientists dream up new "highs" while the law lags. As a result the neat distinction between "consumer," "supply" and "transit" countries has broken down: The United States and Europe are big producers of cannabis and synthetics, while Brazil, formerly a "transit" country, is now the world's second-biggest consumer of cocaine.
That is leading to experimentation with drug policy at a national and state level.
There's nothing new about the ideas that prohibition is illiberal in principle and harmful in practice, and that the least-bad way of dealing with drugs is to legalize and regulate their production and consumption. It takes a brave politician, however, to face down the moral panic that surrounds the issue.
This new thinking, though limited, is therefore welcome. Legalizing consumption allows drug use and addiction -- by no means the same thing -- to be treated as the public-health issues they are. That in turn means applying the principle of harm reduction, for example by providing clean needles to addicts to prevent the spread of HIV.
Decriminalizing consumption does nothing to break the grip of gangsters on the drug business, however. For that to happen, production and distribution also need to be legalized.
That is why the experiment underway in the United States is so important. Colorado and Washington now have the chance to create a legal but regulated market in marijuana, similar to those for tobacco or alcohol. Their referenda approved sales of drugs through regulated outlets only, and not to minors. The states now need to design a way of taxing cannabis that discourages consumption while avoiding the creation of a black market.
This experiment has three potential benefits. It should help to determine whether legalization boosts drug use. It will undermine Mexican drug gangs, which earn perhaps $2 billion a year from cannabis exports to America. It also might provide a model for regulating other, harder drugs.
A threat hangs over the plan, however: In 2005 the Supreme Court upheld the federal ban on marijuana for medical use, even in states where this was legal, because of the risk that the drug would leak to other states. The danger of leakage will increase once this experiment gets underway.
It therefore is encouraging that U.S. President Barack Obama has said he does not see prosecution of pot smokers in Colorado and Washington as a "top priority," suggesting that he plans to do nothing for the moment. Since most of the benefits of legalization will take awhile to show up, it is to be hoped that he will hold his nerve.
One immediate consequence is that the United States will be in breach of the UN Convention. Good. It should now join Latin American governments in an effort to reform that outdated document to allow signatories room to experiment.
Imposing a failed policy on everybody benefits nobody.
See also wfp.to/gradingpot