Playlist: Policy Points

Melvyn Levitsky: Federal decision to ignore states' marijuana legalization is troubling

November 19, 2013 0:02:06
Kaltura Video

Melvyn Levitsky is a professor of international policy. He served as Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics Matters in 1989-93 and had a seat on the Vienna-based International Narcotics Control Board in 2003-12.


The federal government has decided not to enforce federal law making marijuana illegal in the states of Colorado and Washington where recent referenda purportedly legalized marijuana. The implication is varied. The Constitution says federal law is supreme, that means it must be enforced throughout the territory of the United States, and we have the Controlled Substances Act, which declares marijuana illegal throughout the territory.

I'm concerned about the federal government cherry-picking federal law, deciding which federal laws it's going to enforce. For example, it decided to enforce federal law against the state of Arizona, which passed laws concerning illegal immigrants. The second thing I'm concerned about is the meaning of international law since we are obligated, as are almost every country in the world, to carry out the provisions of the three international drug conventions and the constitution says that the obligations under those treaties are the supreme law of the land is as well. 

Treaties are important to us not just the three drug controlled conventions, but all treaties. If we decide that we're going to ignore our treaty obligations, which under treaty law you're not supposed to do, you're supposed to conform to your law to the treaties that you sign. Then what does this mean for other treaties -- such treaties as the non-proliferation treaty, a variety of treaties having to do with the environment and with human rights?  And what does that mean in terms of the image of the United States? I think this is a major concern that has to be met by the federal government and answered by the federal government. It hasn't done so yet.