Cannabis Decriminalization Movement Goes Global

The next frontier in cannabis decriminalization is removing the global prohibitions on use and cultivation.

The United Nations’ 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs — the first international treaty to prohibit cannabis — has been at the center of over fifty years of global suffering caused by the failed “War on Drugs.” As decriminalization and other reforms take hold across the planet, safe access advocates are setting their sights on this cornerstone of global prohibition.


What’s the biggest impediment to worldwide reform on marijuana policy? If you guessed “the Controlled Substances Act,” the law passed by the United States Congress that deems cannabis a highly addictive substance with no medical value, you’d be wrong.

Before Richard Nixon used reefer madness as a political tool to marginalize his sworn enemies—i.e., black people and the left—the U.S. signed onto an international treaty called the “UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

A total of 185 countries have signed onto the treaty, which lists cannabis, along with heroin, cocaine and a host of opiates, as a Schedule 1 narcotic years before the U.S. federal government did the same.

A dose of irony can be found in the fact that the treaty was ratified by the U.S. during the administration of John F. Kennedy, who took a wide-ranging cocktail of drugs for a host of ailments including pain and irritable bowel syndrome — both of which are relieved by medicinal cannabis.

Because of this document, nearly every country on earth agrees (at least officially) that marijuana is a bad, bad thing.

In the decades since, the U.N. treaty has been a useful weapon in the war on drugs, serving as an excuse to stymie drug policy reform—such as when the George W. Bush administration successfully bullied Canada’s Liberal government into abandoning a cannabis decriminalization effort in 2003.

Meanwhile, as medical marijuana has become available in more than half of America — with recreational marijuana available or soon to be available in 65 million people in eight states — the U.S. has made a total mockery of the treaty.

That could be why, as Canada’s federal government licensed medical marijuana producers and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s current Liberal government slowly but surely lays the groundwork to legalize cannabis in that country, the U.S., including President-elect Donald Trump’s crew, has made barely a peep.

On every level, things are ripe for a change—and a World Health Organization committee is making the first moves towards changing cannabis’s status internationally.

The reform advocates at Americans for Safe Access first took note that the WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence, an influential group of international policy-makers, want to “pre-review” marijuana’s classification and possibly recommend an examination that will lead to change.

ASA’s Steph Sherer said this will all happen within the next 18 months.

The committee staff will consider new information related to the cannabis plant, resin, extracts and tinctures,” Sherer said. “Staff will also consider the emerging science related to THC and CBD.”

That’s a glacial pace compared to the speed at which cannabis reform is happening in the U.S. and elsewhere—including Israel, which is making plans to export medical marijuana within a few calendar years. But that’s how the process works.

In order for the UN General Assembly to amend the treaty on narcotic drugs, it needs a recommendation from the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs. That commission, in turn, listens to the expert committee, which is just beginning to prepare to look at the issue.

And you thought the DMV was an intransigent bureaucracy.

Most experts are beyond bullish on further cannabis reform, and with the momentum from November’s near-sweep of marijuana reform initiatives — successful even in red states — some guess that marijuana will be legal across the U.S. within a decade.

Will the U.N. catch up by then? It’d be nice, but it might not matter. Still, better late than never.

TELL US, do you think the UN should dissolve or amend the Single Convention on Narcotics?

Chris Roberts has written about medical cannabis, drug policy, and legalization ever since spending a few months in Humboldt County in 2009, with bylines for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, and SF Weekly. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @cbloggy.

2 Comments

  1. Lawrence Goodwin

    December 30, 2016 at 8:13 pm

    If I’m not mistaken, the United Nations’ 1961 Single Convention on Narcotics treaty was written with direct input from Harry Anslinger, infamous architect of the 1937 “marihuana” law in the United States. For that reason alone, the UN should immediately “dissolve” any parts of that treaty related to cannabis plants, about which Anslinger was totally ignorant. He zealously spread his anti-“marihuana” delusions while serving in the UN after his term at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the vast anti-drug bureaucracy preceding the Drug Enforcement Administration.

  2. John Marshall

    December 30, 2016 at 7:11 pm

    Informative article… thanks. We haven’t talked much about the UN treaty in the US given that the states, not the Federal Government, are driving the decrim/legalization.

    But Canada is struggling with this in their quest to put forth legislation to legalize cannabis.

    Canada’s timeframe is a lot faster than the UN’s. Which means that if Canada follows through on Liberal party promises to their voters, which is to pass legalization laws in 2017, then they will have to withdraw from the treaty. That’s going to be interesting given it’s not usually the Canadian way to abrogate UN treaties.

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