Cannabis Regulation and the UN Drug Control Treaties

Legal regulation with due respect for international law
Transnational Institute (TNI), the Global Drug Policy Observatory (GDPO) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)
Amsterdam, 26-28 October 2017

un cannabis longSignificant cannabis policy reforms are taking place that pose considerable challenges to the international legal framework for drug control, and beg important questions regarding states’ international legal obligations. At the April 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session on the ‘World Drug Problem’ (UNGASS), governments studiously avoided discussing the treaty tensions associated with the regulation of cannabis for non-medical use, which the UN drug treaties expressly forbids. The result was an UNGASS outcome document that acknowledged some flexibility but emphasized that national drug policies should be in full conformity with the three prohibition-oriented international drug control conventions.

Meanwhile, at the UNGASS, Canada’s Trudeau government announced that it would be introducing legislation to regulate cannabis; the government’s proposals were unveiled in April 2017, and debate is currently underway in the Canadian parliament. In November 2016, four more U.S. states, including California, approved ballot initiatives to legalize cannabis for non-medical uses. The eight U.S. states, plus the District of Columbia, where adult-use (non-medical) cannabis is now legal under state law are home to one in five Americans. In the state of Colorado alone, sales revenues for adult-use cannabis topped $875 million in 2016 and are on track to surpass $1 billion in 2017. In July 2017, Uruguay began sales of non-medical cannabis, and already more than 14,500 Uruguayans are registered to make legal purchases of the cannabis grown by government-licensed producers; meanwhile, more than 7,000 people are registered for cultivation for personal use, and more than 60 civil associations have obtained a license to grow collectively for their members, similar to the social club model operating in Spain.

At the same time, a diverse group of other Latin America and the Caribbean countries—including Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Jamaica, Mexico and Peru—are enacting and implementing medicalcannabis systems. In Europe, proposals for cannabis regulation are also under consideration, at national or local levels. The new Dutch government has announced that it will be permitting local experiments in regulated cannabis production to supply the coffeeshops. Against this backdrop, the World Health Organization (WHO) has initiated a review of the classification of cannabis under the drug conventions.

The urgency to develop well-grounded legal argumentation relating to cannabis regulation and the future evolution of the UN drug control framework is thus increasing. The time is right for the discussion of concrete proposals for moving forward on the path of legal regulation with due respect for international law—a crucial consideration for not only the international drug control regime itself but also the wider international legal system of which it is a part.

This expert seminar aims to address the challenge by bringing together international legal scholars and officials from the United Nations and from national government agencies to discuss and debate different options and scenarios to facilitate cannabis regulation models under international law. The seminar marks the second phase of an ongoing collaboration among the host organizations. A previous seminar took place in Washington, D.C., in 2014, and the sponsors and colleague organizations outlined possible reform options in a 2016 briefing paper, Cannabis Regulation and the UN Drug Treaties: Strategies for Reform.