Cannabis and the 1961 Convention

IDPC/TNI side event at 56th Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND)
Tuesday, March 11, 2013

Over the past years, there have been some soft and hard defections on cannabis control. It is now time to discuss alternatives that are based on facts and evidence, said Dave Bewley Taylor introducing the session. TNI worked on a report on cannabis, which is looking at the hard defections in the United States and other types of cannabis regulation that have been happening around the world. The report also discusses how cannabis was included in the UN drug control conventions.

A history of how cannabis was included in the international drug control system: James Mills

James Mills wrote a book entitled "Cannabis Nation: Control and Consumption in Britain, 1928-2008", which includes information about the history around cannabis control in international drug control treaties. The question is - how was consensus established on cannabis ahead of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs? There was no consensus on cannabis control before the 1950s.

  James Mills at the cannabis and the Conventions side event

In 1925 and the signing of conventions on opium, cannabis was isolated from the debates. A sub-committee on cannabis was then established and ran until 1940, but its work was discontinued because of the Second World War, so no recommendation was put forward.

Discussions on cannabis were started again in 1950 at the 5th Session of the CND, where a draft of what would become the 1961 Convention was circulated. Two solutions were presented, one was to entirely ban cannabis consumption, the other one was to ban cannabis consumption except for medical and scientific purposes. Discussions were differed until 1952, when a WHO expert committee  was established to assess medical and scientific uses of cannabis. It decided there were insufficient grounds for medical and scientific uses of the substance. Based on the WHO decision, the CND Secretariat presented another proposal to ban all cannabis use, but this was opposed by India.

The Secretariat decided that more information was needed on cannabis and therefore decided to conduct an international survey through questionnaires. However, these questionnaires focused primarily on recreational use of cannabis, rather than on its medical and traditional use.

In 1959, a coalition of countries decided to declare that cannabis had no medical purpose. In 1960, the WHO conducted a study on the use of cannabis for antibiotics and decided that cannabis had a negligible part to play in it. This report was criticised as being fundamentally flawed.

In 1961, the CND Secretariat introduced a proposal which ignored the WHO recommendation and banned cannabis consumption except for medical and scientific purposes. As India had opposed the ban on cannabis leaves use for indigenous purposes, the compromise was that there would be a separation between cannabis and cannabis resin.

The new Uruguay law on cannabis regulation: Diego Canepa, Uruguay

Uruguay has just introduced a bill in Parliament to regulate the production, supply and use of cannabis. It is little known, but Uruguay decriminalised drug consumption 40 years ago. This move towards cannabis regulation is therefore a logical movement for the country. The change was made possible because of political will.

Uruguay is different from other Latin American countries. Contrary to the other countries of the region, Uruguay has a low rate of homicides, but this rate has recently increased because of narco-trafficking in certain parts of the country. As a result, the government decided to draft a new programme including 15 initiatives to improve the quality of services in the country. One of these initiatives was on cannabis regulation through state control. Within this framework, a bill was presented to the Parliament, which should be adopted by the upper house next week. After the bill is passed, the government intends to open public discussions on cannabis.

But this has led to heated discussions on why Uruguay should pay the costs of making such a drastic change, being the first country to do so. For the government, however, this is not an international question, but a national public health issue.

The Uruguayan government is now setting up a complex system of regulation for cannabis, where we track and control what we produce, how and where cannabis is sold, personal production, consumption, etc. Anything outside of this state control will constitute a felony.
With regards to cannabis, one thing is clear - Uruguay will not change its views because of the 1961 Convention. The issue is a public health one and we need to respond to it in the best and most effective way to promote the health of individuals. We also need to re-think the whole system, and focus on scientific evidence.

The current cannabis reforms and future steps: Martin Jelsma, TNI

The United States constitute the first type of direct people's acceptance of cannabis policy reform around the world. But other jurisdictions have also done some softer reforms - some have scheduled cannabis in less strict regimes, the Netherlands has implemented the coffee shop model, other countries have turned to the more collective model of the coffee shops. There is therefore a clear trend of cannabis reform.

In terms of medical marijuana, there are also many examples of this such as in California, and this is fully legal within international law. There are also some examples of religious use of cannabis in countries like Pakistan and Egypt.

Today, however, we are moving from tensions to clear breaches of the UN conventions. We therefore need a recalibration of the regime to accommodate these new trends. There are a few ways of doing this. First, cannabis will be on the agenda of the next WHO Expert Committee so it might ask to have the substance de-scheduled. Another possibility would be the same model adopted by Bolivia - denouncing the convention and re-accessing with a reservation on cannabis. Finally, the last option would be to review some parts of the conventions.