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Cannabis Reform Set for Debate at UN

United Nations
Photo by Jay Reed via Cannabis Now


Cannabis Reform Set for Debate at UN

With the United Nations General Assembly Special Session scheduled to meet later this year in New York City to discuss the state of global drug policies for the first time in almost two decades, some believe the focus of this inevitably controversial debate will focus on amending international drug treaties to allow countries to legalize of marijuana.

By the end of 2015, it was made known that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had already put the machine in motion in hopes of completely ending marijuana prohibition across the northern nation. It was later announced that the Mexico Congress was also interested in entertaining nationwide reform, scheduling a number of public hearings intended to discuss the possibility of legalization in an effort to control cartel violence and other problems stemming from their current policy.

In the meantime, the United States government said of the discussions in Canada and Mexico, “it’s up to the people… to decide which drug policies are most appropriate for their country within the framework of international law.” However, John Kirby, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of the State, made sure to clarify that United States citizens were not about to get the same respect because the federal government is “firmly committed to the three UN drug conventions.”

The international drug treaties that have deterred the U.S. from national reform are the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961; The Convention of Psychotropic Substances of 1971; and the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988. Essentially, the scope of these treaties specifies that the cultivation and sale of marijuana for non-medicinal purposes is a violation of worldly law.

Despite some arguments that suggest the treaties are not binding in the United States, international law experts say they actually have more influence than people realize.

“The United States is actually very limited in what it can legally do vis–à–vis its international treaty obligations, regardless of what policy changes make sense for its own citizens,” according to a special subcommittee of the New York Bar Association specializing in international drug laws.

The United Nations recently flexed a bit of muscle by sending out a briefing to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, advising the Liberal government to explain to world leaders how they plan to legalize, regulate and restrict access to marijuana without violating international drug treaties.

“As part of examining legalization of cannabis possession and production, Canada will need to explore how to inform the international community and will have to take the steps needed to adjust its obligations under these conventions,” the briefing reads.

Several other countries are believed to have received a similar warning. The UN’s memo indicates that a number of nations have expressed interest in reforming their policies on marijuana and other drugs, and will be forced to plead their case during the UNGASS gathering in April.

“At the meeting, several South American countries as well as Mexico wish to discuss what they perceive as more effective policy approaches to respond to the current realities of the drug problem, which could include decriminalization/legalization of illicit drugs, harm reduction, and/or a call to renegotiate the international drug control conventions.”

Many argue that the United Nations does not have any real authority over the issue of marijuana legalization; otherwise Uruguay would have created an international incident when it became the first country in the world to establish a legal framework for weed. But Uruguay was actually forced to answer to the same harassment tactics as Canada and Mexico – only leadership stood up to the UN by refusing to pull back on their plan in the interest of public health.

Last summer, Juan Andrés Roballo, the president of Uruguay’s National Drug Board submitted a report to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights defending the country’s decision to legalize marijuana despite the argument that the country’s plan was “incompatible with what is stipulated in the 1961 Convention.” Although the UN claims it is keeping a watchful eye on Uruguay, even on the United States, nothing has been done to avert legalization.

A number of world leaders are expected to demand various levels of drug reform when UNGLASS meets in the spring. However, some policy experts warn the outcome of the session “is unlikely to be the game changer in global drug policy that some are seeking.”

Do you think there will be a meaningful change in international drug policy when the UN meets this year?



  1. Tyrone Smith

    April 11, 2016 at 6:30 pm

    Screw the treaties. Human rights come before idiot politicians and “leaders”.

  2. rock star

    January 25, 2016 at 2:30 pm

    Change needs to happen soon for the good of humanity. Prohibition has failed. It does more harm than the drugs themselves.

  3. MH

    January 18, 2016 at 10:12 am

    It may not result in meaningful change, but it is meaningful that the conversation is happening at all in the international arena.

  4. Paul Pot

    January 18, 2016 at 2:12 am

    UNGASS, the UN meeting on global drug policy, was due to be held in 2019 (it’s held once every 10yrs) but due to considerable pressure, mainly from a number of South American nations, there will be an early “Session” this year as those nations most deeply affected by the drug war seek solutions to the overwhelming violence that the drug war has burdened them with.

    And just by happenstance the meeting falls on April 20 this year.
    You read right, the guys who run the show decided to put the biggest discussion of the decade on drugs on our annual day of celebration of the fine Herb.

    Let’s make it a day they remember – 420.

  5. David

    January 17, 2016 at 2:59 pm

    We need the names and contact info of the US representatives to this conference so we can make them aware of the good that can be done by legalizing, rescheduing, or descheduling marijuana.

  6. Iownme

    January 17, 2016 at 11:32 am

    I hate the UN. Too bad it is mostly people on the left, who are stereotyped as the “potheads” who defend them. Someone with actual balls would extend a big middle finger to those UN totalitarian scum. Good on Uruguay. Much respect to them.

  7. Andy

    January 16, 2016 at 3:27 pm

    John Kirby is obviously an idiot if he says it’s up to the people and at the same time saying the US is firmly committed to the UN treaties. I personally wish SCOTUS would just find federal drug laws to be unconstitutional, which in my opinion are as no where in the US constitution does it say government can prohibit a substance or product. It does state they can regulate, but regulate and prohibit are two completely different definitions.

  8. Malcolm Kyle

    January 16, 2016 at 12:34 pm

    The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has very recently recommended the decriminalization of possession and use of all drugs. This follows a withering critique of the negative impacts of the war on drugs on human rights across the world.

    Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General.

    Advance Edited Version, 4 September 2015:

    25. The Special Rapporteur has observed that criminalizing drug use and possession has led to risky forms of drug use designed to evade criminal prohibitions, which has in turn resulted in increased health risks for drug users. Risky forms of drug use may include the sharing of syringes and injection supplies, hurried or risky injecting and the use of drugs in unsafe places. The preparation of drugs in a hurry, to avoid detection by law enforcement officers, may increase the risk of overdose, vascular accidents and infections. The Special Rapporteur has noted that criminalizing drug use and possession may lead to an increased risk of illness, including from HIV infection, among people who use drugs (see A/65/255, paras. 25-26).

    29. The Special Rapporteur has identified many ways in which criminalizing drug use and possession impedes the achievement of the right to health. He has called for the decriminalization of drug use and possession as an important step towards fulfilling the right to health. He has noted that decriminalizing drug use cannot be equated with legalizing it. Decriminalization means that drug use and possession remain legally prohibited but that criminal penalties, if they are applied at all, are minor and of a noncustodial nature. Legalization, by contrast, involves no prohibition of the relevant conduct. (see A/65/255, para. 62).

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