From National to International Cannabis Reform

Debate about cannabis regulation cannot simply be a national one, but how can country-level reforms make way for international progress?

In one of the clearest signs yet of the shifting attitudes to cannabis in the corridors of power, The Economist argued this month that: “It is only a matter of time before international drug treaties will come to be seen as fundamentally broken”. 

The publication - which is influential in policy circles and has a weekly circulation of 1.5m - has long campaigned for cannabis legalisation. But its latest article is particularly significant because it hones in on the unsustainable position of the UN Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs, signed in 1961.


The 1961 convention was the first global deal to place cannabis under full international control, limiting its use to specific medical and scientific purposes, and superseding the 1928 International Convention relating to Dangerous Drugs, which had previously placed restrictions on its export. The convention is little known by the general public but, along with its sister conventions of 1971 and 1988, represents the foundation of cannabis prohibition worldwide. Some 186 countries are signatories.

Yet, as The Economist highlighted, the conventions are is increasingly being ignored: in the last few years, Uruguay, Canada, and 11 US states have legalised cannabis for recreational purposes. Luxembourg plans to soon become the first EU country to fully legalise cannabis and New Zealand will soon hold a referendum on the issue. Almost 60 years after it was set up, the global narcotics control system is under unprecedented pressure.

The problem for reformers, however, is that rewriting the conventions themselves is not on the agenda, since doing so requires the consent of all treaty parties. As The Economist explains: “Many important countries, most notably Russia and China, remain implacably opposed to reform. The lack of a global consensus prevents the rewriting of the drug treaties.” 

Indeed, attempts to amend the conventions, such as those of civil society organisations at the 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs, failed to effect even modest changes to the conventions, which would have allowed progressive countries to interpret them more flexibly.

Under the status quo, a growing number of countries will follow Canada and simply ignore international law - undermining the UN. Yet there is a better alternative. As The Economist puts it: “A possibility that intrigues international-policy wonks is for Canada and other law-breakers to form an “inter se” (between themselves) agreement, allowing them to modify existing drug-treaty provisions.”

The “wonks” who are pushing this “inter se” idea are affiliated with three bodies: the Global Drug Policy Observatory (GDPO), The Transnational Institute (TNI), and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). In a 2018 paper, the groups provided a roadmap for how like-minded countries could end prohibition and introduce regulated cannabis markets in a controlled and coordinated fashion, while still respecting the “spirit and purpose” of the UN conventions. 

The GDPO-TNI-WOLA thinkpiece admits that their proposed “inter se” route would not be without controversy. But nonetheless, “Applied with caution and reason under exceptional circumstances, inter se treaty modification appears to provide a useful safety valve for collective action to adjust a treaty regime frozen in time such as the UN drug control conventions.”

“A coordinated collective response has clear benefits compared to a chaotic scenario of a growing number of different unilateral reservations and questionable re-interpretations. Indeed, inter se modification would facilitate the development of what, within an international policy environment characterized by faux consensus, is increasingly necessary: a ‘multi-speed drug control system’ operating within the boundaries of international law, rather than one that strains against them.”

What is interesting about this route to international reform is that, rather than aiming for a top-down approach, lobbying at a UN level and hoping to garner changes to treaties centrally, this model builds on the individual developments at national and state level. It is a first attempt to provide a cross-border solution that pulls together the progress these countries have made with cannabis regulation, rather than leaving leaving them to defend themselves as isolated examples against the international status quo. Such a development would undoubtedly serve to ease any fears other countries contemplating cannabis regulation may have about receiving support from the international community.

At Hanway we agree that reform is urgently needed at a coordinated, international level. So we’re encouraged to see that The Economist is referencing nuanced arguments about how this could happen. Debates about cannabis regulation cannot remain at a national level, but neither will international change come from within the UN while the sclerotic system of international treaties remains unchallenged. Fresh thinking that draws on national progress to create new international consensus may be the answer: this is a global matter that needs global solutions.

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