Just as different stances toward cannabis exist in the United States despite the federal prohibition, there is a global patchwork as well. The international Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 guided much of the Controlled Substances Act passed in the U.S. in 1970; the international agreement puts substances (for example, cannabis, heroin, cocaine) in different classes or schedules based on medical value and abuse potential and urges enforcement against non-medical uses.
In the decades since, some countries have taken their own approach. For example, Spain and the Netherlands have a proliferation of cannabis collectives and cafes that are not outright allowed, but tolerated. Portugal has decriminalized simple possession of all drugs. Several countries allow the medical use of cannabis (whole plant): Canada (2001), The Netherlands (2001), Israel (2007), Czech Republic (2013), Italy (2013), Uruguay (2013), Chile (2014), Jamaica (2015), Croatia (2015), and Colombia (2016). And Uruguay also became, in 2013, the first country to legalize and regulate cannabis for personal use.
In an October 2014 meeting, William R. Brownfield, Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, appeared to acknowledge this global shift–a landmark moment:
In my statement, I laid out what we call our four pillars as to how we believe the international community should proceed on drug policy. First, the – respect the integrity of the existing UN Drug Control Conventions. Second, accept flexible interpretation of those conventions. The first of them was drafted and enacted in 1961. Things have changed since 1961. We must have enough flexibility to allow us to incorporate those changes into our policies. Third, to tolerate different national drug policies, to accept the fact that some countries will have very strict drug approaches; other countries will legalize entire categories of drugs. All these countries must work together in the international community. We must have some tolerance for those differing policies. And our fourth pillar is agreement and consensus that whatever our approach and policy may be on legalization, decriminalization, de-penalization, we all agree to combat and resist the criminal organizations – not those who buy, consume, but those who market and traffic the product for economic gain. Respect the conventions; flexible interpretation; tolerance for national policies; criminal organizations – that is our mantra.
Still, roughly a dozen countries have carried out the death penalty for drug-related offenses in the previous half a decade. And a handful of countries detain drug users against their will in so-called rehabilitation centers that abuse patients and put them in solitary confinement, in addition to other human rights abuses. Nothing in the international drug control treaty prohibits this approach.