The United Nations agency tasked with monitoring drug enforcement said in a recent report that non-medical (adult-use) cannabis legalization in some US states is a violation of international drug treaties established more than 60 years ago. In its 2022 annual report, the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) wrote that America’s federal government isn’t complying with the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs by passively allowing states to legalize adult-use marijuana within their borders.
The INCB has regularly criticized countries that have allowed territories within their borders to legalize cannabis because of the obligations of member states under the 1961 Single Convention, according to a report from Marijuana Moment. But in its 2022 annual report released earlier this month, the independent and quasi-judicial monitoring body for the implementation of the United Nations’ international drug control conventions appeared to take aim at cannabis policy reforms at the state level in the US.
“In States with a federal structure, a special issue may arise with respect to whether the Federal Government may be held accountable if a federated entity implements legalization, which violates the conventions, while the Federal Government does not have the power to compel the federated entity to fulfill the treaty obligations,” the INCB wrote.
The INCB added that member states are required under the 1961 treaty to “give effect to and carry out the provisions of this Convention within their own territories,” even in nations with a federal system of government such as the United States. The convention states that “unless a different intention appears from the treaty or is otherwise established, a treaty is binding upon each party in respect of its entire territory.”
“The internal distribution of powers between the different levels of a State cannot be invoked as a justification for the failure to perform a treaty,” the INCB maintains.
INCB Offers Reasons to Maintain Prohibition
The agency offered several reasons for continuing the prohibition of cannabis under the 1961 convention, including the treaty’s view that cannabis is a highly addictive drug that is subject to abuse. The report also notes that legalizing the use of adult-use cannabis lessens the perception of risk and leads to higher rates of consumption.
“The most concerning effect of cannabis legalization is the likelihood of increased use, particularly among young people, according to estimated data,” the UN wrote in a statement about the INCB report. “In the United States, it has been shown that adolescents and young adults consume significantly more cannabis in federal states where cannabis has been legalized compared to other states where recreational use remains illegal. There is also evidence that general availability of legalized cannabis products lowers the perception of risk and of the negative consequences involved in using them.”
The report adds that policy reforms have failed to meet the objectives of states that have legalized adult-use cannabis, including the desire to reduce criminal activity and protect public safety. The agency noted the persistence of illicit markets in jurisdictions that have legalized adult-use cannabis, including Canada, Uruguay and parts of the US.
“Evidence suggests that cannabis legalization has not been successful in dissuading young people from using cannabis, and illicit markets persist,” said INCB president Jagjit Pavadia.
Jason Adelstone, an associate attorney at the cannabis law firm Vicente LLP, wrote in an article about the INCB report that the evidence cited by the agency doesn’t support its conclusions on the success of cannabis legalization, including data that show a significant reduction in the illicit market in jurisdictions that have ended the prohibition of adult-use marijuana. He also notes that the report is calling on member nations with jurisdictions that have legalized cannabis to prioritize INCB policy over their own laws.
“Basically, INCB is saying that no matter what the federal government’s constitutional limitations are, signatories with strong federalist systems, such as the US, must violate their constitution in favor of drug treaty requirements to ensure local jurisdiction comply with the drug treaties,” Adelstone wrote in an email to Cannabis Now.
Adelstone says the agency’s narrow interpretation of the 1961 convention requires member states that don’t have the authority to force their territories to comply with the requirements of the treaty to nonetheless take such action.
“This position is unworkable, incompatible with law and practicality and dangerous,” Adelstone continued. “If a signatory’s constitution prohibits the federal government from enforcing requirements on local jurisdictions, or its citizens, then the federal government will not, and should not, enforce such requirements. Pushing any other narrative is dangerous, risking the stability of constitutional governments.”
Despite the International Narcotics Control Board’s continued criticism of member states that have allowed adult-use cannabis legalization measures to take effect, the agency hasn’t assessed any penalties against nations that have allowed policies contrary to the 1961 convention.