Russia has replaced America as the world’s drugs policeman

For over half a century, the US has been the world's policeman on drugs, using its power and influence to bribe, cajole and threaten states into pursuing a counter-productive policy.

The roots lies in a messy mixture of moral panic and racism, mostly due to cannabis' association in the 1930's with the African American community. This is the point at which America took the lead role in worldwide campaigning and found itself embroiled in a psycho-cultural war against a plant.

By 1961, when the Single Convention was published, it led the fight for cannabis to be included, using aggressive diplomacy, unreliable scientific data and its influence over the newly-created World Health Organisation (WHO).

In the years that followed, that 1961 convention has come to be treated like a holy grail, a quasi-religious document upon which all international drug laws must be based. It is, in fact, total cobblers, but this did nothing to limit its ramifications.

But this year, something has changed.

Ministers from across the world are currently meeting in Vienna for a high-level UN session on drug, ostensibly to check on progress towards the 2008 ten-year UN strategy.

But America is not its old self anymore.  Its position as world leader on drug prohibition has become untenable after Colorado passed a law allowing production licences of cannabis.

Previously, efforts to liberalise drug laws could be – just about – fitted into the 1961 convention, which allows states to decriminalise cannabis. What you cannot do, under any circumstances, is legalise production.

This is the legal grey area Holland operates in. Sure, weed is sold from coffee shops. But production remains illegal. What goes out the front door is legal, but what goes in the back door isn't. Presumably some sort of magic happens on the premises to launder the plant into moral and legal acceptability.

Not so in Colorado. Colorado went all the way. It legalised production. The same thing has been undertaken in Uruguay.

These small moves, one by a US state and another by a tiny Latin American country, have destroyed the international consensus on drugs. Just as importantly, they have crippled America's role as lead policeman. After all, even the president has said the Colorado experiment is OK.

Latin America and Europe have mostly followed suit. For all its domestic refusal to listen to evidence on drugs, the UK has a decent record of pushing for movement on harm reduction strategies at the UN and a tough approach to any country carrying out executions on drug crimes.

However, a core rump of countries – countries like Japan, China, Indonesia, Iran and Singapore – are refusing to accept the worldwide trend towards liberalisation. They are led by Russia.

Harm reduction strategies, such as shooting galleries and the use of methadone, have been shown to save countless lives and cut the transmission of HIV. They are vehemently opposed by the Russian group.

The opposition is ideological. These countries won't even accept the term 'harm reduction', despite the fact that it is an official name used by the WHO and the UN. Methadone is actually illegal in Russia.

A similar battle is taking place over the use of capital punishment in drug cases. Iran and China are particularly appalling in this regard. Between them they butcher hundreds of people a year on these types of charges.

Currently 25 countries retain the death penalty for drug offences. It is against international law and the will of the UN general assembly. Even the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), a creaky, cobwebbed tyrant whose mandate is to bully countries into toeing the line on drugs, has reluctantly said it is wrong. It took them 52 years to muster the courage, but at least they did it.

The EU and Switzerland are pushing hard on this. The hardcore of anti-drug reform states won't budge.

The third issue of debate is beyond satire. The Russian group won't allow the ministerial statement published at the end of the talks to even mention that there is a global debate on drugs law.

It is remarkable.

In the last year, Uruguay became the first national jurisdiction in the world to legalise cannabis; the world's first legal, recreational cannabis market opened in Colorado; Colombia and Guatemala took a daring stand at the UN general assembly, telling assembled delegates that the war on drugs had failed; and the Organisation of American States became the first multinational body to raise the prospect of drug treaty reform.

But the commitment of some countries to preventing drug reform is so strong they are demanding the ministerial statement does not even mention a debate.

It reminds me of an old Russian joke I heard once.

Lenin, Stalin, Krushchev and  Brezhnev are on a train. It breaks down, so Lenin leans out the window and shouts: "Fix it." The workers try, but they have no luck, so Stalin leans out the window and shouts: "Kill everyone."

This doesn’t fix things either, so Krushchev takes over. He demands that everyone be brought back to life, but still the train won’t move.

"OK," says Brezhnev. "Close the curtains and pretend we're moving."

That, ultimately, is the Russian drug strategy.

And surprisingly enough it isn't working.

"Something's got to give," Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst for Transform tells me as he prepares to head off to Vienna.

"This is my seventh year. The first one was terrifyingly closed minded. No-one could say or question anything. NGOs weren't even allowed in the meetings.

"Now there's open dissent on the floor. People are openly calling for the law to be reviewed. One person mentioned New Zealand's [progressive] legal high system and he was applauded."

The rhetoric from the talks is getting increasingly heated.

Yesterday Colombian justice minister Gómez Mendez said: "With the moral authority that we have after having implemented the recommendations of the international community for years, we call for more effective ways to achieve the objectives stated in international agreements. We have a responsibility to represent our citizens, and not to take the challenge and act accordingly would be an unforgivable error."

Representatives of Mexico, Guatemala and Ecuador – countries that are facing an existential threat from the war on drugs – echoed his message.

The changing role of the US has had a massive impact. This is the ringleader, the first line of defence, the architect of global drug law. And suddenly one of its states is legalising weed production and its president is giving it the nod.

"We have some states legalising cannabis productions and others still executing people," Rolles says.

"That suggests we don't have a consensus."

As the West and Latin America gradually submit to the logic of drug law reform, the hardcore rump of anti-drugs states, mostly from Asia and the Middle East, are likely to become even more vociferous in their opposition.

Russia is their leader, a new world policeman for the 21st Century. There is no reason to believe it will be more successful in this endeavour than America before it.