The existing United Nations (UN) regime against cannabis and other drugs is no longer relevant in today’s society. Last April, the United Nations held a special session that reviewed international cannabis policy. It would be the first time since 1998 that the three-day United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drug policy took place.
Many hoped to finally see change in the UN’s sluggish approach to cannabis policy. The excitement didn’t last long. The UNGASS 2016 session in Vienna closed with cannabis still being prohibited by international treaties that govern sovereign nations around the globe. Cannabis remains lumped alongside heroin and crack cocaine in Schedules I and IV as defined by the UN General Assembly. The overall ruling was virtually indistinguishable from past drug policy convention outcomes in 1971, 1988, 1998 and so forth. Nations may observe the treaties, but federal cannabis penalties are rarely enforced the way other Schedule I drug penalties are enforced. “Soft defections” occur when the law is recognized, but seldom enforced. Obviously, the way many nations handle cannabis policy doesn’t reflect the standard set forth by the UN General Assembly.
“[current] international cannabis policy is based on the societal mores that existed in 1961—a time before civil rights, women’s suffrage and many other civil rights that we take for granted.”
John Walsh, the senior associate for drug policy and the Andes at the Washington Institute on Latin America, issued a briefing paper in lieu of the UNGASS event. “There is no doubt that recent policy developments with regard to cannabis regulation have moved beyond the legal latitude of the [UN]treaties,” Walsh wrote. Walsh and several other activists offered side events that questioned whether the UNGASS Assembly was still relevant.
Twenty-eight states have legalized cannabis for medical or recreational purposes. United State Officials claim that states that have legal cannabis do not violate the UN treaties because cannabis is already prohibited by federal law. In Uruguay, officials argued that legal cannabis should be allowed by international law because human rights override UN-mandated drug policies. A number of UN Member States, including Argentina, the Czech Republic, Ecuador and Mexico, have called upon the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) to reconsider its drug policies that are defined by the treaties. The CND is the UN’s central drug policymaker. Other nations, such as Spain, quietly ignore the treaties with the implementation of Cannabis Social Clubs. Canadian officials bravely announced that Canada would be introducing recreational cannabis legislation in spring 2017, to mixed support from UN members.
The vast majority of international cannabis policy can be traced to the UN Single Convention of 1961. What that means is that international cannabis policy is based on the societal mores that existed in 1961—a time before civil rights, women’s suffrage, and many other civil rights that we take for granted. What’s worse is that according to the Transnational Institute, the UN Single Convention of 1961 stems from a biased memo written by a WHO official, Pablo Osvaldo Wolff. The expert position of the WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) was never taken into consideration. The original treaty was drafted when cannabis prohibition’s remarkably racist history defined drug policy. The original 1961 convention language was drafted during the 1940s and 1950s, when racist “reefer madness” ruled supreme in the United States.
The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs is the template that sovereign nations use to craft cannabis prohibition. Consequently, the United Nations is ground zero for international cannabis reform. The time to modernize UN drug policy is far overdue.
“In light of the outdated nature of the drug control treaties and the seemingly insurmountable procedural and political obstacles to modernizing them, the question is often raised why countries should not simply withdraw from the UN drug control treaty regime.”
Walsh offers several potential solutions, including withdrawing from the UN treaties altogether. “In light of the outdated nature of the drug control treaties and the seemingly insurmountable procedural and political obstacles to modernizing them, the question is often raised why countries should not simply withdraw from the UN drug control treaty regime,” Walsh suggested. “The option exists for any signatory Member States to withdraw from the treaties via the process of denunciation; treaty exit would technically ‘solve’ the problems of breach or non-compliance from a legal perspective.” Several of Walsh’s other suggestions are unlikely, mostly due to the fact that they involve an approval from the majority of UN member states.
According to the 2016 UNGASS Outcome Document, the new challenges presented by modern society “should be addressed in conformity with the three international drug control conventions, which allow for sufficient flexibility for States parties to design and implement national drug policies according to their priorities and needs . . . ” UNGASS It is simply more convenient for the United States and other sovereign governments to go along with the regulations set forth by the conventions.
The UN treaties on drug reform should be drafted based on a consensus and certainly not drafted based on private biased from previous generations.