As Legal Weed Goes Global, International Drug Treaties Are Questioned

In a teleconference on Wednesday afternoon, lawmakers and policy advocates from Canada and Mexico detailed their interests in marijuana legalization and discussed the upcoming United Nations General Assembly Special Session on drugs to potentially assist in policy reform on such substances. Both Canada and Mexico have recently made strides to legalize marijuana, potentially violating international drug control regimes. Nonetheless, advocates for marijuana legalization are pushing forward and pulling no punches as they make the case for regulation, and this teleconference was no exception.

Phoning in from Canada, Liberal Parliament Member Nathaniel Erskine-Smith wasted no time arguing against prohibition. “I want to start with a simple and broad proposition… the War on Drugs is a failure,” he said, adding that “[prohibition] causes more harm” than the problems it purports to solve. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal party campaigned on the promise of legalizing marijuana before winning the election in November, but implementing that reform hasn’t been as simple as advocating for it.

“It is hard to say when final policy will be put forward,” he said, but “Legalization will in fact happen.” Erskine-Smith said that the government is working to determine the best model of marijuana regulation moving forward, and that coordinating with provinces that (like U.S. states) can enforce its own regulations are essential. He said lawmakers are considering whether a public or private industry will best serve public health interests, and how to regulate a market without potentially increasing consumption.

“If we take a public health approach seriously, we will need to restrict commercial advertising of the product,” he stressed. Other rules he said are essential to an effective model include limits on personal grow, impaired driving, and public use. Erksine-Smith said he hopes to see the national marijuana market regulated by the end of 2017. 

In Mexico, marijuana legalization is not as imminent a reality, but the Supreme Court’s November ruling that prohibiting use violates human rights is an indicator of momentum behind reform in the country, which is ravaged by narco wars. Thousands of unsolved disappearances, brutal crimes, and the corruption of government officials in Mexico have made alternatives to policies that allow for a violent black market especially appealing. On the call, Aram Barra, member of Mexican Society for Responsible and Tolerant Personal Use, which argued the case before the Court, said the ruling reaffirms prohibition’s adverse consequences and the urgency for reform. “The drug policy today violates human rights that our constitution defends,” he said. Mexican senator Laura Angélica Rojas Hernández, who was also on the call, made similar remarks about the need for marijuana legalization and other drug policy reforms to protect the rights and safety of Mexican citizens.

The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (amended twice, in 1971 and 1988) has provided an international treaty or template for drug policy among UN members, and focuses on law enforcement efforts to reduce drug use and sale. Because it includes cannabis as a Schedule I drug, marijuana legalization in Uruguay and several US states violates these conventions.

Erskine-Smith said that for marijuana legalization and other harm-reduction-oriented drug policies, like supervised injection facilities for heroin users, to move forward in Canada, United Nations treaties “need to be flexible” and acknowledge that the differences between drugs should allow for them to be regulated according to those differences.

While the US has counted on flexibility to move forward with marijuana legalization, David Borden, executive director of, said that “over-reliance on the flexibility concept” could also allow for overly punitive drug policies that violate human rights by, for example, allowing the death penalty as punishment for drug crimes.

Last month, more than 200 non-governmental organizations signed a letter urging the Obama administration to press the UN to clarify international drug control regimes and shift toward policies that prioritize human rights and public health above incarceration. Since the “A Drug Free World — We Can Do It!” narrative of the last UNGASS on drugs in 1988, public opinion on drug policies has shifted significantly. Kofi Annon, the UN Secretary General that year, said in a February op-ed on the Huffington Post drugs should be decriminalized and regulated so that an evidence-based, public health model can replace the failures of prohibition. “We need to accept that a drug-free world is an illusion,” Annon said—a far cry from a drug-free world.

“It is very clear to us that the current model is not working,” Barra said, “What the rest of the world may do with that statement, that is the question I think that lays before the UNGASS.”

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