Allowing marijuana legalization in the District leaves the United States vulnerable to charges it is violating international treaties aimed at stemming the drug trade, the nonpartisan research arm of Congress concluded in an analysis that could strengthen the resolve of lawmakers on Capitol Hill to overturn the measure.
Though four states have voted to legalize the drug, a report issued this week by the Congressional Research Service suggests that implementation of the District’s Initiative 71 could be considered the most direct affront to international agreements because Congress has oversight of local D.C. laws and the ability to overturn them.
The analysis addresses questions by the United Nations-backed International Narcotics Control Board on whether the city’s marijuana law would undermine the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which pledged international cooperation to limit the spread of illegal substances.
“This line of reasoning suggests that if Initiative 71 is permitted to take effect, this inaction by the federal government may strengthen the Board’s argument that the United States has not fulfilled its commitments under the Single Convention,” the report stated.
Last week, Reuters quoted Yury Fedotov, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, as saying legalization in some states was inconsistent with international treaties.
“I don’t see how [the new laws] can be compatible with existing conventions,” the news agency quoted Mr. Fedotov as saying.
More than two-thirds of voters endorsed marijuana legalization in the District at the ballot box this month. But unlike measures passed in Oregon and Alaska and those in effect in Colorado and Washington, Congress has final authority over laws in the city.
Members could block implementation through a “rider” attached to a larger bill, or the House and Senate could pass a rare joint disapproval resolution that would also require the signature of President Obama.
Conflicting reports about congressional interest in blocking implementation have emerged in the weeks since the initiative passed, suggesting that the referendum’s fate is uncertain.
Rep. Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican who has led the effort to block implementation of looser pot laws in the District, said Tuesday that the legal opinion puts more pressure on Congress to act.
“I would hope it would, but this issue has gone way outside the realm of rationality,” Mr. Harris said. “I’m a little puzzled at how we can avoid enforcing the law on marijuana and still be in compliance with those treaties.”
He said the Congress would act to overturn the marijuana law early next year either through riders or a disapproval resolution.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the ranking Republican on the Senate committee with oversight of the District, has said Congress should respect the will of the voters.
The author of the Congressional Research Service analysis, Todd Garvey, pointed out that the United States is a party to three international drug control conventions that require U.S. authorities to limit the movement and use of marijuana to scientific and medical purposes. The analysis notes that the Controlled Substances Act was enacted to enable compliance with those requirements.
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but the Justice Department has outlined a policy by which it would use prosecutorial discretion not to go after users in states where it has been legalized for recreational use. Officials have cited the low priority of such cases, framing the issue as one of law enforcement resources.
William R. Brownfield, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, echoed the argument before international reporters in October. Asked about U.S. treaty obligations, he said the Controlled Substances Act was still in effect.
“We are all required to abide by the conventions that we ourselves have ratified,” he said. “But the conventions are not rigid. The conventions were written more than 50 years ago. We are allowed to interpret them so long as our interpretation is still consistent with our universal desire to reduce the misuse and abuse of harmful products throughout the world.”
The Congressional Research Service report puts off the question of whether the U.S. has strayed from its international obligations by adopting a policy of nonenforcement in Oregon, Alaska, Washington and Colorado. It notes that the Constitution leaves Congress with little authority over the laws passed in those states.
“The federal relationship with the District, however, is a completely different story,” it states, recounting how Congress has plenary authority over D.C. laws.
“While the federal government is limited in its ability to prevent states from removing criminal penalties for marijuana under state law, there would appear to be an available ‘legislative’ action that the federal government may take to prevent the District from legalizing marijuana: it may enact a joint resolution of disapproval rejecting Initiative 71 and preventing the measure from taking effect,” the analysis states.
The initiative passed by D.C. voters would make it legal to possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana and for D.C. residents to grow up to six marijuana plants in their homes. The ballot measure does not set up a scheme by which marijuana could be bought and sold, but city lawmakers already have begun drafting regulations and a taxation mechanism.
Keith Humphreys, a professor at Stanford University who studies drug policy, agrees that the treaty concerns make the District a special case when it comes to marijuana legalization.
“This is not as clear-cut as Oregon or Alaska, which are not party to international treaties,” Mr. Humphreys said. “If Congress doesn’t act, this would be pushing it further than what has happened so far.”
“For the states, it may be pushing the spirit of the treaties, but the letter of the treaties are fine. This would be going against the treaties more directly,” Mr. Humphreys said.
Other than a dent in its credibility on the international stage, it’s doubtful the United States risks any irreparable harm if marijuana legalization is allowed to take effect in the District, he said.
“It’s not important in the grand scheme of marijuana, but it is interesting as a signal of whether this Congress cares about that international agreement or not,” Mr. Humphreys said. “Life goes easier if people trust the United States. There are advantages to making our behavior conducive to international agreements.”
Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which supported the legalization initiative, doesn’t think lawmakers will rally the political will necessary to block the legalization initiative. Fear that the measure would violate international treaties is also unlikely to stir up support, he said.
“I think these international drug conventions turn out to be a really minor issue in all of this discussion, and the really important issue will be how many states keep setting up tax-and-regulate systems,” Mr. Nadelmann said.
• S.A. Miller contributed to this report.