Cannabis Regulation and the UN Drug Treaties

Strategies for Reform
June 2016

As jurisdictions enact reforms creating legal access to cannabis for purposes other than exclusively “medical and scientific,” tensions surrounding the existing UN drug treaties and evolving law and practice in Member States continue to grow. These treaty tensions have become the “elephant in the room” in key high-level forums, including the 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs — obviously present, but studiously ignored.

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Different countries and international agencies have different reasons for seeking to avoid directly engaging the question of what to do about these tensions. But the kinds of treaty breaches that may have seemed merely hypothetical only a few years ago are already a reality today, and will not simply disappear. Under such conditions, it is not difficult to understand why many countries would prefer to avoid or delay confronting the treaty questions raised by cannabis regulation.

Indeed, such concerns go far in explaining the attraction of the legally fallacious — but politically potent — stance that the drug treaties as they stand are flexible enough to accommodate the regulation of adult-use cannabis. Different countries have different reasons for finding appeal in the notion of treaty flexibility. However, for governments for whom it would be politically convenient to maintain that cannabis regulation fits within the boundaries of the Conventions — especially the United States — “sufficient flexibility” could be read as covering cannabis regulation.

The fact remains, however, that the accelerating process of national reforms has already moved cannabis policies beyond the boundaries of what the Conventions can legally accommodate. To move the debate forward, this paper aims to illuminate the available options for countries to ensure that their new domestic cannabis laws and policies are aligned with their international obligations, thereby modernizing the global drug control system in ways consistent with international law and the overarching purposes of the UN system. It is important to emphasize that treaty reform does not necessarily require negotiating a new global consensus.

TNI is also calling for a special advisory group to make recommendations on how to better deal with the contentious issues following the 2016 UNGASS, in preparation for the next UN high-level review in 2019.


An earlier version of the briefing was presented during a side event at the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem on April 20, 2016.