This is how we legalize pot

The United Nations General Assembly will hold a special session April 19 to April 21 to discuss changing its policies initiated in the 1960s criminalizing drugs and drug users. It is now widely recognized that those policies have failed. Hopefully, topping the list of reforms by the U.N. body will be the removal of marijuana from the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, an international treaty to prohibit the production and supply of specific drugs.

Hundreds of advocates for marijuana legalization rally and smoke pot outside the White House in Washington, D.C.
Marvin Joseph | Getty Images
Hundreds of advocates for marijuana legalization rally and smoke pot outside the White House in Washington, D.C.

That could go a long way toward clearing away international agreements that have been among the impediments to decriminalization of marijuana by the U.S. government. It would also put an end to the billions of dollars wasted each year on the U.S. government's continuing war on marijuana, which has continued even as a growing number of states are legalizing marijuana.

In fact, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has just released a memo stating it will decide in the next few months whether to change the federal status of marijuana. A change in U.N. policy would make it easier for the federal government to begin the process of legalizing marijuana.

Let's back up. Here in America, marijuana legislation is at the tipping point. Currently, 24 states and the District of Columbia have medical marijuana laws and four states plus DC have adult use laws. As many as 10 states will have ballot initiatives this fall. More than 58 percent of Americans are in favor of legal marijuana use.

A huge illicit marijuana industry already exists worldwide. Proponents of legalizing marijuana argue that legalization will change this industry to a non-criminal, controlled industry akin to the controlled alcohol and tobacco industries. Growth and sales of marijuana will thus contribute to the economy as a major new industry in the U.S. and around the world.

In the past month alone, three industry analysts have published bold predictions for the value of the marijuana industry, with widespread predictions ranging from $21 billion to $44 billion by 2020. They all have one common caveat: The federal government would first need to legalize marijuana. Even now, the exponential economic growth in states where marijuana is sold legally is substantial and compounding as more and more states begin doing business.

We need to stop spending billions of dollars a year fighting the marijuana war. Legalization would not only eliminate needless government spending but add billions in tax revenue to government coffers and add thousands of jobs from farming to retail sales.

To realize that dream fully there are several obstacles for the industry to overcome amid the political banter including reclassification, state's rights, and decriminalization. Currently, there are three treaties that may be a more important first step to address at the federal level: The United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961), the Convention on Psychotropic Substances (1971), and the Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (1988).

These treaties, which the United States, Canada, Mexico, and most of Europe have signed, requires these countries to establish criminal offenses for the production, cultivation, extraction, possession, and sale of marijuana. The required criminal offences carry with them harsh penalties that often lead to the imprisonment of individuals or groups that violate the terms of the treaties.

If the UN addresses marijuana legislation in these terms, this may be the very lynch pin in the United States for reclassification of marijuana, removing it from its current status as a schedule one drug like heroin and LSD. In 1988, the UN held discussions on this topic that resulted in no significant changes. However, many things have changed since 1988, particularly in terms of marijuana, and not just in the United States; Canada, Portugal and Uruguay have all made history (and headlines) with legislative changes on a national level, all in violation of the U.N. Treaties.

So now, in 2016, we have our chance to change these international treaties, and begin to reform how countries enforce drug laws, which in turn, will pave the way for the United States to start considering change on a federal level. The only way for medical marijuana to be accepted nationally is with a well-regulated marketplace.

History has taught us that the more regulated an industry, the more voters and politicians will support the change to allow its legal and regulated commerce. Look at tobacco and alcohol. These are well-regulated industries that generate jobs and taxes for the country, whether we approve of them or not. We need to stand up to the anti-legalization lobby, namely the pharmaceutical and alcohol lobby. We cannot let politics get in the way of patients getting their medicine.

Changing the treaties will not provide a clear roadmap to federal legalization but the UN meeting on April 19 may remove some significant political hurdles. There might be more than usual celebration on April 20 — an unofficial but widely celebrated National Marijuana Day.

Commentary by David Dinenberg, a marijuana industry expert and the CEO of Los Angeles-headquartered KIND Financial, a financial technology solutions company for the cannabis industry. Follow him on Twitter @daviddinenberg.

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