The WTO: the stoner's new best friend.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
March 17 2005 2:27 PM

World Weed

The WTO—the stoner's new best friend.

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The issue is sharpened by the problem of the import of cannabis for medical purposes. The White House now denies that cannabis is a medicine, saying "even if smoking marijuana makes people 'feel better,' that is not enough to call it a medicine." But a 1999 medical study commissioned by the (Clinton) White House concluded otherwise, saying "the accumulated data suggest a variety of indications, particularly for pain relief, antiemesis, and appetite stimulation." Such findings cannot help the U.S. case.

The United States does have a fallback defense: Marijuana makes good people bad. The World Trade Organization allows countries to enact measures "necessary to protect public morals." Which raises this fundamental question: Is it wrong to be stoned? A 1924 Daily Mirror editorial said, "Marijuana inflames the erotic impulses and leads to revolting sex crimes." And today, according to the White House, "Marijuana users in their later teen years are more likely to have an increased risk of delinquency and more sexual partners." But just because smokers drop out and have more sex, is that sufficient to sustain a morality-based barrier on trade? No one knows, but it is the kind of question that makes trade law interesting.

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In order for the WTO to consider the legality of U.S. drug laws, some country would have to bring a WTO complaint against the United States. Don't expect a case tomorrow, but it may just be a matter of time. An increasing number of countries—including Belgium, Holland, and Canada—have begun to allow licensed growing of marijuana, and today's growers will be tomorrow's exporters.

Canada is the natural WTO plaintiff. Just as with alcohol during prohibition, Canada makes lots of money selling contraband dope to its southern neighbor. According to the Canada's National Post, Canadian marijuana is a $7 billion industry, or larger than Canada's wheat and dairy industries, and its fisheries. And the laws up north are loose. The last two prime ministers have been legalization advocates. (Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien famously said, "The decriminalization of marijuana is making normal what is the practice. ... I will have my money for my fine and a joint in the other hand.") And some Canadian courts have even struck down marijuana laws as violative of fundamental rights. Even Tommy Chong (of Cheech and Chong) is from Alberta—the Canadian complaint at the WTO could well begin, "Hey, man …"

The economic incentives to bring a WTO complaint are clear. For Canadian and other marijuana exporters, the American recreational and medical weed market is the big fatty. Americans smoked 1,047 metric tons of ganja in 2000—according to U.S. government estimates, worth $10.5 billion. (The White House estimates that the average smoker goes through 18.7 joints per month.) Every afternoon, at 4:20, millions of bowls light across the nation—and what country wouldn't want a piece of that?

For many, these points may lead to questions not about the drug laws but about the WTO. But none of this should be a surprise. The WTO's reasoning is economic, and economic logic taken seriously often has radical consequences. Many economists, including Nobel-laureates Gary Becker and Milton Friedman, have long believed that American marijuana laws are irrational. And as William F. Buckley Jr. puts it, "marijuana prohibition has done far more harm to far more people than marijuana ever could."

The irony here is difficult to overstate. The same WTO that most stoners love to hate may someday be the organization that guarantees their supply. In the words of Willie Nelson, "Marijuana is an herb and a flower. God put it here. What gives the government the right to say that God is wrong?"

Correction, March 18: The article originally stated that nicotine was cancerous and as addictive as crack, but nicotine does not itself cause cancer—other substances in cigarettes do. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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