Global Marijuana: The United Nations has Spoken, Badly as Usual

The UN on cannabisI was in New York last week chairing a panel about investment in the cannabis industry for NYU’s Cannabis Science and Policy Summit (which I’ll blog about shortly). While I was there, the United Nations kicked off its first Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly (“UNGASS“) in two decades on worldwide drug policy reform. At the last UN special session on drugs in 1998, international leaders agreed to “work toward a ‘drug free world‘ by 2008.”The UN is well known for being no fan of cannabis legalization. It has openly criticized legalization in Washington and Colorado and its drug control policies are mostly centered on prohibition based on the. The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotics mandate UN member states combat drug use and implement prohibition and criminalization.

The UNGASS agenda this year contained multiple round tables on myriad issues related to worldwide drug policy reform and, ultimately, reduction of harm. Unfortunately, the Special Session still supports prohibition of marijuana via a “drug plan” the Commission on Narcotic Drugs adopted in Vienna in 2014, which adoption takes the form of this “outcome document” adopted at this year’s UNGASS. Still, there was at least a bit of robust debate regarding cannabis and some even talked about the need for more sensible drug policies worldwide. Representatives from Jamaica asked the UN to specifically review marijuana’s illegal status and multiple other countries (including Mexico and Colombia) expressed their disappointment with the international community’s failure to acknowledge that the “war on drugs” in pretty much all countries has been a complete failure.

Jamaican Foreign Minister Kamina Johnson-Smith talked about how absurd it is to schedule cannabis as a dangerous drug with no medical uses:

Scheduling cannabis as a dangerous drug with no medical use — a status that dates back to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs — is outdated and out of touch. Johnson-Smith further stated that “[w]e contend that the classification of cannabis under the Single Convention is an anomaly and that the medical value of a substance must be determined by science and evidence-based analysis, above other considerations . . . .

Ultimately, the “outcome document” adopted at this UNGASS adhered to the UN’s existing conventions which only support hardline drug policies. This means that the UN will not be embracing cannabis legalization (for non-medical or non-scientific use) anytime soon (or at least not until 2019 when the next UNGASS is scheduled). As multiple countries continue to implement more progressive recreational cannabis law reform, the UN’s overall support for prohibition is going to continue to create political conflict and inconsistency across borders. As Richard Branson aptly puts it in his op-ed on UNGASS 2016:

The problem is that UNGASS is out of step with realities on the ground. As more and more national, state and municipal governments pursue progressive approaches – including regulation – the more they will show the inherent flaws of the international drug control regime. The risk is that the UN fails to adapt to changing priorities, realities and evidence and that the multilateral approach to controlling drugs collapses altogether. It may already be too late to save the broken and fragmented drug regime.

Though many Americans view the UN unfavorably and of little import, many smaller countries around the world view it with more respect. Our fear is that those countries will listen to and abide by the UN’s dictates on cannabis and slow down their own legalization programs. We will see.