Uruguay Violating Treaties By Legalizing Marijuana, U.N. Agency Says

Top anti-drug bureaucrat worries about 'health and welfare of humankind.'

People march for the legalization of marijuana toward the Legislative Palace in Montevideo, Uruguay, on Dec. 10, 2013.
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Uruguay is violating international treaties by legalizing marijuana, according to the independent United Nations agency that monitors enforcement of anti-drug agreements.

The South American country's legislature approved long-pending legalization plans Tuesday. The idea was pitched by Uruguayan President José Mujica as part of an anti-crime package.

Raymond Yans, president of the International Narcotics Control Board, said in a Wednesday statement that Uruguayan lawmakers "knowingly decided to break the universally agreed and internationally endorsed legal provisions" contained in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

"[T]he main aim of the 1961 Single Convention is to protect the health and welfare of humankind," Yans said. "Cannabis is controlled under the 1961 Convention, which requires States Parties to limit its use to medical and scientific purposes, due to its dependence-producing potential."

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In addition to the 1961 treaty, Uruguay also ratified the 1988 U.N. Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, which requires countries to criminalize marijuana possession.

"Cannabis is not only addictive but may also affect some fundamental brain functions, IQ potential, and academic and job performance and impair driving skills," the Vienna-based INCB said in a statement. "Smoking cannabis is more carcinogenic than smoking tobacco."

The Uruguayan legislation takes effect in April 2014. It allows adults 18 and older to grow up to six marijuana plants and authorizes licensed pharmacies to dispense the drug without a prescription.

Uruguay is the first country to abolish marijuana prohibition entirely. Two American states - Colorado and Washington - have also done so, but the federal government retains the right to intervene against recreational marijuana stores scheduled to open in early 2014.

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After residents of Colorado and Washington voted in November 2012 to legalize marijuana, the INCB also warned those plans would violate international treaties.

"Implementing the decisions of popular votes held in the United States in Colorado and Washington to allow for the recreational use of cannabis would be a violation of international laws," the INCB said in a March 14 statement. Yans said the rollouts would, specifically, violate the 1961 treaty.

The U.N. body did not attempt to sanction the U.S. after Attorney General Eric Holder announced Aug. 29 the federal government will allow recreational pot stores to open.

Kevin Sabet, a legalization opponent who advised the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations on drug policy, says the U.N should act against Uruguay, which with around 3 million citizens has significantly less international clout.

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"There is no doubt that this moves violates international law, and the U.N. does have enforcement power," says Sabet, who co-founded the anti-legalization group Project SAM in January with former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I. "So the ball is in their court. I think they need to make it clear that violating international law cannot be ignored."

Sabet says "I think we need to be vigilant about evaluating the effects of this policy so that other countries may learn from it."

Supporters of marijuana legalization, however, believe the effects will be overwhelmingly positive.

Legalization will reduce crime and violence in Uruguay, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition board member Terry Nelson said in a statement.

"Uruguay has taken a strong step towards improving human rights, the rule of law and public safety," said Nelson, a former U.S. Customs and Border Protection employee who worked in Latin America. "I hope that other nations will have the courage to do the same."

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Tom Angell, chairman of the organization Marijuana Majority, said Uruguay's decision "is a pretty clear signal that the global war on marijuana is ending."