At the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in March 2008 in Vienna three resolutions on cannabis were tabled. They were all clearly against 'lenient policies' in some countries depenalising or decriminalizing the use of cannabis. One of the resolutions called for the criminalization of drug abuse that would have significantly expanded the UN drug conventions.
At the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in March 2008 in Vienna three resolutions on cannabis were tabled. The first one The consequences of cannabis use: reinvigorating prevention and education efforts (L.3), was tabled by the United States. Its purpose was to keep the cannabis issue high on the agenda. By stressing adverse health risks the resolution was meant to offset the inclination to depenalise or decriminalize the use of cannabis in some European and Latin American countries as well as Canada (although the current conservative government decided not to pursue the proposed cannabis reform legislation that would have decriminalized possession of small quantities of cannabis).
The draft resolution included an 'invitation' to the INCB to "continue sharing information regarding its efforts to monitor and report on the application of the international drug control treaties by Member States with regard to cannabis." Clearly, that was an attempt to keep the pressure on more lenient countries given the continuous condemnation by the Board of countries that show leniency in prosecuting cannabis offences or introduce depenalisation of possession of small amounts for personal use. In this year’s annual report the Board lectured Brazil for introducing a law that establishes alternative sanctions for drug abuse without decriminalizing it.
During the deliberations the resolution was somewhat watered down. First, the title was changed to The consequences of cannabis use: refocusing prevention, education and treatment for young people. That reflected the content of the resolution much better and excluded the many adult non-problematic cannabis users. To make this point, a representative of the EC noted that one in seven people use cannabis and, assuming that the delegates were no exception, asked the question if participants in the room needed treatment as well.
The invitation to the INCB was shifted from the operative paragraphs to the preliminary ones and limited to monitoring and reporting on the application of the international drug control treaties pursuant to the 1961 Single Convention. This was an acknowledgement of the position of the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) in its recent briefing ‘The International Narcotics Control Board: Current Tensions and Options for Reform’ that argues that no mandate been given to the INCB to monitor implementation of the 1988 Convention, despite the fact that the INCB often oversteps this mandate.
The second resolution Combating the illicit cultivation of and trafficking in cannabis (L.9), tabled by Egypt and Thailand asked for assistance in strengthening national strategies and action plans to eliminate the illicit cultivation of cannabis and funding for alternative development programmes, especially in Africa. This is almost a ritual resolution that appears every other year and is part of a – unsuccessful – drive by some African countries to put cannabis on the agenda in order to receive funding for alternative development programmes. Lenient policies towards the ‘abuse’ of cannabis are not only a threat to public health, according to some countries, but also counterproductive to efforts of developing countries, which were devoting considerable effort and resources in an attempt to reduce the cultivation of cannabis on their territory. A view that is constantly repeated in the Plenary as well.
The third resolution (L.23) Reducing the demand for illicit drugs was the most serious one. Tabled by Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, it voiced its concern that "some States permit the use of substances that are under international control" and trying to reaffirm previous resolutions which called "the criminalization of drug abuse" pursuant to the conventions. In the operational paragraphs it called "to uphold the established policies on the criminalization of the use of illicit drugs" and to "to take additional measures to criminalize the cultivation of cannabis, including for personal consumption, and to prosecute those engaging in such cultivation."
Approval of this draft would have significantly expanded the UN drug conventions. Even the most restrictive one, the 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, does not oblige parties to criminalize the use of drugs or to prosecute cultivation of cannabis for personal use (prosecution is subject to national criminal justice systems). The draft was unacceptable to many countries and during the week endless consultations to change the draft continued. At a certain point even a European ambassador was called upon to complain about the intransigence of the Arab countries.
In the end all references to criminalization were deleted. The L.23 resolution was one of those that had to be finalized on Friday evening in the Plenary because agreement in the Committee of the Whole – where resolutions are prepared to be adopted at the Plenary – could not be reached. The main problem remaining was the first paragraph that stated "differences in some countries regarding the levels of penalties with respect to drug abuse are reducing the restrictions on cannabis that are under international control." In the evening Canada proposed to change "drug abuse" into "cannabis related offences may be perceived as" and to the surprise of many involved in the weeklong negotiation process it was accepted without any opposition. However, somehow none of the original drafters of the resolution had noticed the change, and Morocco and Algeria tried to open the negotiations again in the late hours. That attempt was blocked by the Netherlands supported by a united front of other so-called 'lenient' countries.
The resolution called also for "a comprehensive study on cannabis which includes world trends in plant cultivation, use and its impact." However, the Secretariat commented that a survey would require significant extra-budgetary resources and was thus subject to the financial mantra. Moreover, the secretariat pointed to the 2006 World Drug Report (WDR) in which a survey already had been undertaken as a result of previous resolutions and announced an upcoming issue of the Bulletin of Narcotics on the issue of cannabis.
This year’s resolution was almost identical as the one in 2002 when there was an attempt in the CND to put a dam against the perceived 'leniency'. At the time it was based on the 2001 annual report of the INCB, which contained strong language about the tolerance trend. A draft resolution expressed the concern that "lenient policies towards the use of illicit drugs not in accordance with the international drug control treaties may hamper the efforts of the international community to address the world drug problem," and called to "criminalize the use of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances for non-medical purposes." Then as now, the resolution was watered down.
While proponents of more strict policies towards cannabis use the CND nearly every year to press their point of view, the more tolerant countries keep silent, opting to avoid a debate rather than add fuel to the polarisation. The outcome is that the view of the zero-tolerance countries is re-invigorated across the UN drug control system. One of the results were the exaggerated claims by Costa in the 2006 WDR – which devoted a special chapter on cannabis – of a devastating "cannabis pandemic" caused by the unlimited supply and demand of cannabis "subject to the vagaries of government policy." Central to this claim was the emergence of high potency cannabis on the market, and the failure to control supply at global level.
Mr. Costa's strong language was at odds with the content of the report, which was much more cautious and did not mention a cannabis pandemic. It recognized that "much of the early material on cannabis is now considered inaccurate, and that a series of studies in a range of countries have exonerated cannabis of many of the charges levelled against it." In fact, the UNODC now implicitly acknowledged that the scientific base for putting cannabis on the list of the 1961 Single Convention at the same level as cocaine and heroin has been incorrect. The report did point to the key issue concerning cannabis today: "Either the gap between the letter and spirit of the Single Convention, so manifest with cannabis, needs to be bridged, or parties to the Convention need to discuss redefining the status of cannabis."
Next year a resolution on cannabis is to be expected again by the countries that tabled the one this year and which were quite angry about the fate of the resolution on Friday night. Like-minded 'lenient' countries should prepare a response. To take up the suggestion of the UNODC, which has been voiced by the INCB as well in 2002, would be a way to go. The World Health Organisation offered repeatedly to review the medical data on cannabis. That is another possibility, although medical studies alone will not give the answer. The 2006 WDR showed that supply reduction is impossible given the potential to grow the plant everywhere, and past efforts to control its availability have failed. To put more effort in controlling supply is not based on an analysis of cost-effectiveness in relation to other options, and neither on an analysis of why past efforts of supply reduction have failed.
Another option would be to make cannabis subject to a control regime similar to harmful substances like alcohol and tobacco. The existing control regimes of alcohol and tobacco show that by not prohibiting use and supply, but trying to regulate the market to exercise control over what is supplied where and how - which is not possible in an illicit market - offer a range of opportunities. A regulated market could set limits on the percentage of THC in cannabis or make high potency cannabis more expensive (for instance by extra duties compared to low potency cannabis). The example of tobacco control sets all kinds of examples to regulate use and change consumer behaviour.
 The International Narcotics Control Board: Current Tensions and Options for Reform, IDPC Briefing Paper 7, February 2008
 European Cannabis Policies Under Attack, TNI Briefing, April 2002
 International Drug Control: 100 Years of Success? TNI comments on the UNODC World Drug Report, TNI Policy Briefing 18, June 2006