We are 100 years on from the first serious attempts at marijuana prohibition (1920s USA), and yet now we have 11 legal cannabis markets in US states while the rest of the world still ascribes to international drug treaties that were drawn up by and enforced by the US.
The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs will turn 60 next year, and after doggedly resisting reform for so many years, it appears the treaty is finally heading for an enforced retirement.
Created to align international efforts to thwart the global production and trafficking of narcotics, including through cannabis regulation, the agreement was crafted in a bygone era when the inner circle of power in the at-the-time nascent United Nations was a very different beast. As an example of how much things have changed, the first country to push for total prohibition of cannabis under the treaty, the USSR, no longer exists.
The Single Convention has been undone by two separate forces; increasing cannabis legalisation movements around the world have undermined its main purpose, and its shortcomings in regard to protecting scientific testing of cannabis have been exposed by the researchers and medical professionals who have been strangled by red tape.
Keeping up with domestic trends
International law has not kept pace with domestic legislative trends or public opinion, and having failed to stay relevant while Uruguay, Canada and swathes of the US open recreational markets, our global drug regulation instruments need to be urgently updated to reflect the era we live in.
Cannabis must surely be removed from its current classification at a minimum, and I would propose going even further and rewriting the agreement to give countries the power to regulate the drug as they see fit.
Later this year, New Zealand residents will vote nationally on whether to allow recreational cannabis to be legalised, with opinion polls showing a solid lead for “yes”. South Africa and Mexico are also clearing a path for non-medicinal use with new laws due this year. In both cases, it was the courts, rather than the government, that sided with the individual’s right to cultivate and consume cannabis in the privacy of their homes.
Concepts of privacy have been front and centre of many of the most significant legislative developments of recent years; consider the impact of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, with its extraterritorial powers to protect and extend the data rights of citizens. Respecting the fundamental rights and freedoms of individuals is a central tenet of technology regulation; perhaps these ideals should extend (with caution) to our drug laws.
I spent 12 months researching a book on the changing nature of cannabis law, and spoke with several UN drug officials and researchers, domestic and international regulators, and other health executives, along with affected families and other members of the public, over the course of that period on these and other matters.
The agreement is almost unanimous that cannabis can be a force for good in medicine, but the processes around changing its categorisation at international level are so politicised as to be toxic. Even the independent researchers working for the World Health Organisation, whose job it was to look purely at the science of cannabis in making their recommendations over cannabis categorisation, are fed up with the partisan UN voting committees.
“It gets political,” a scientist connected to the World Health Organization Expert Committee on Drug Dependence speaking anonymously told me. “Privately, countries mostly know the recommendations make sense, but they don’t want to change their own domestic laws. Some are afraid that the interpretation of the recommendation is to loosen control. Others are silent; they don’t know what they are going to do. Some are quietly supportive, and others openly supportive. That is four very different groups for the WHO to deal with. It’s incredibly complex and we are not sure how this will get resolved.”
There are watchdogs with clout to help smooth some of this over; the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), whose role is to oversee compliance with the Single Convention.
Reforming international law
That the INCB has condemned Uruguay, Canada and Australia’s capital territory for allowing recreational cannabis markets to open in contravention of the Single Convention, but has turned a blind eye to proceedings in the US, where now 11 states have voted by public referendum to allow fully regulated adult cannabis markets, is fairly damning.
Several of the US states in question have said that they did not sign up to any international treaty, and the Single Convention doesn’t apply to them. Repeated requests over the last 12 months to the INCB have gone unanswered. It has refused to acknowledge my calls and emails or offer any justification for its recent actions, and I do not believe I am alone in that regard.
A regulator either toothless or too cowed to act must surely be held to account. INCB meetings are closed door, with no media or other observers present, and its minutes are not published even for member states. The organisation is uncountable, opaque, and in need of either scrapping or major restructuring, perhaps as part of any treaty revisions.
Shaping the future of cannabis regulation
There is little to gain by criticising decisions made by historic regimes, or going over the rights and wrongs of prohibition, but as our representatives are starting to push for change, we have a chance now to break with the past and bring the treaty in line with modern thinking.
There are many unanswered questions about what opening the accord will do, and how we should go about it, however it would be a calamity to rush in and get the revisions wrong, leaving the cannabis industry, and most importantly countless patients, worse off.
The former UK health minister Sir Norman Lamb he believes the cannabis industry must look to set the highest standards of self-regulation, in the first instance, and resist the efforts of capitalist lobbying.
“My preference is to start with tough cannabis regulation and then review, loosen the controls if appropriate, based on an evidence-led review,” Lamb told me. “It is easier than doing it the other way around, as by then you then have massive economic interests influencing government and getting in the way of reform.”
In helping to shape future laws, and hopefully provide input into a new Single Convention, the cannabis industry must beware of repeating mistakes made by the tobacco, alcohol, and gambling industries over the last 20 years in squashing public health concerns and going overboard with marketing.
The 1961 treaty was drafted with harm reduction in mind, and while it is absolutely time to revisit, revise and rewrite, we would do well not to stray too far from the original purpose, to protect the public and support research. While prohibition has plainly failed, the idea of a ‘Green Gold Rush’ doesn’t help anyone either, and at both of these extremes there is a real risk of harm.
Journalist and author
Cannabis Law and Regulation