How Canada might deal with its international drug treaty obligations

Three potential ways for Canada to deal with its international obligations while legalizing cannabis

With the Canadian federal government set to imminently launch a legislative framework for the legalization of recreational cannabis, it will have to deal with some pesky little thorns in its side: two major United Nations drug treaties that dictate that cannabis use and trafficking must be penalized.

Together, the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances require signatory countries—practically the entire world—to criminalize the trafficking of marijuana.

That’s a requirement that will run counter to Canada’s domestic legalization, and there's a couple of routes Canada could take in maneuvering the waters of international drug treaties.

Do nothing

One approach is to do as Uruguay has done. The country legalized marijuana on a recreational basis domestically back in 2013, with pharmacies just now beginning to sell the drug to consumers.

When it came to the two UN drug treaties, of which it had been a full signatory from the start, Uruguay opted not to alter its relationship with them, despite appearing to contradict their requirements domestically. It remains a full signatory to both UN treaties, and its move to legalize the plant while seemingly ignoring its treaty obligations has ruffled some feathers in the international drug community.

When the country tabled legalization legislation back in August 2013, the International Narcotics Control Board strongly condemned the move. “Such a law,” a statement from the INCB read, “would be in complete contravention to the provisions of the international drug control treaties.” In December of that year, when the legislation passed in the Uruguayan Parliament, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime disapproved. Ultimately, little action was taken, and Uruguay has continued to argue that its only mandate to the drug treaties is to prohibit the illicit trafficking of cannabis, which it says it is combating through the enabling of legal sales channels.

Denunciation and re-accession with reservation

A second option would be for Canada to denunciate the treaties and re-accede to them with the specific reservation of bypassing them vis-à-vis the matter of cannabis use and trafficking. This is exactly what Bolivia did in 2009 when it denunciated the 1961 treaty and in 2013, re-acceded with the reservation that it would not prohibit the coca leaf within its borders. Various UN treaties already have a number of reservations by multiple countries, and this could be a promising route for Canada to follow, but it is not without its pitfalls: a third of the 183 signatories to the 1961 Convention, or 61 states, could have objected to Bolivia’s reservation in 2013, but that never happened. With the way the world is starting to look at cannabis, there may not be more than a handful of states that wish to block Canada’s path.

The medical exemption route

The drug treaties contain a curious exemption that has not been well-defined. The treaties enable countries to bypass imposing penalties for “scientific” or “medical” endeavors. It’s a long-shot, but Canada could position its recreational legalization as a medical program, though this would certainly make a mockery of the treaties. Still, it’s interesting to note that some observers, such as CAMH’s Benedikt Fischer, have viewed the MMPR (and ostensibly the ACMPR that followed it) as “de facto legalization.” In addition to medical exemptions, the treaties enable an exemption where parts of the treaty directly contradict a country’s constitution, though you’d be hard-pressed to find Prime Minister Justin Trudeau conferring with the provinces to add cannabis to the Charter.

Earlier this year, University of Ottawa Professor Steven Hoffman and student Roojin Habibi wrote a piece in the Canadian Medical Association Journal comparing options. They advocated for Canada to withdraw from the treaties completely.

I would probably argue on behalf of the denunciation and reaccession with reservation route—in my mind it’s unlikely that a third of the signatory countries would block Canada’s attempts to legalize. This would also allow Canada to continue following the drug treaties as a whole while carving out the ability to legalize and regulate cannabis domestically.

“What should be avoided at all costs,” Hoffman and Habibi write, “is the illegal path, which is to legalize marijuana in a way that violates Canada’s international legal obligations.” But to that I say: look at what Uruguay has done—then again, they’re not a G8 country like Canada.

Featured image by Maina Kiai.

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  1. Robert Reply

    Those treaties are made to be broken we are a sovereign nation we decide our fate those treaties never should have been signed they are fabrications lies and half truths no science was used when they were written just fear mongering , ignorance and racism and those are not scientific facts.

  2. Timothy Meehan Reply

    The Parker, Hitzig, Allard and Smith have all said that Canadians' health is subservient to these treaties, which themselves are subservient to the constitution. Do nothing. Let the Americans complain, with Donald Trump at the helm you know it's all a game show anyway.

  3. Maxcatski Reply

    Canada needs to get out of these treaties completely and to take a sensible approach to manage all drug consumption. Cannabis is harmless compared to alcohol and tobacco and any treaty that forces us to criminalize cannabis consumers is wrong.

  4. HeWhoShallNotBeNamed Reply

    Dictatorship and forcing of insane (illogical, counter-to-scientific-evidence, and repeatedly adhered-to despite failing, is the universally-agreed definition of 'insane') drug laws onto the world, is to be resisted at all costs. Why governments flout the Geneva Convention and all sorts but can't be honest - and it is SIMPLY about being honest about the facts about how drugs work and how supply-and-demand economics work - makes me and many others suspect that the goal of this dictatorship is harm, not good. Time we abolished pathetic drugs laws that cretinously pretend cannabis and heroin are in the same category. They mustn't have heard of the concept of LD50 (the dose where >= 50% of test subjects die of overdose, i.e. the average overdose level of drug ingestment required to be more likely to die than to live). With cannabis, you'd have to smoke a building-sized pile of it in a few minutes. Impossible. With heroin, just a few tens of milligrams. With alcohol the dose size (e.g. 100ml of whisky over multiple glasses, over an hour) is VERY close to the overdose size (10x that over multiple glasses, for a smaller person, is dangerous, more can easily be fatal). Very easy to ingest, in theory. Yet the law on this drug makes such doses affordable in most worl jurisdictions!
    Nicotine is more addictive than heroin, mg-for-mg. Legal. Nicotine helps people work. Alcohol helps people party without getting addicted (hangovers self-police repetitive daily drinking of too much booze, so people will go to work and be good productive little capitalist-fuel).
    As Bob Marley said in (I think an interview for NZ television, according to the accent of the interviewer): "Herb is a PLANT!" "Them say it's not good because it makes you lazy and it makes you rebel... *Pauses, looks intensely at the camera* "Rebel against WHAT?" [I paraphrase, the interview is on the 'Time Will Tell' documentary, I believe].

    Pt. 1:
    Pt. 2:
    (Please buy it if still available, as it is superior to any other Marley film IMHO).

    Now check the lyrics to Outkast's 'Babylon' from the ATLiens album.
    (Outkast aren't known to be Rasta but there are parallels in the metaphor used):

    The song talks about how people are corrupt and children are literally born drug-addicts... and adult females use these drugs so they can tolerate doing the fake dehumanising things they do for money. This being so common, that as a man, if one is real these days one is rejected and how 'bleak' (good word for it!) that is as a mentality for society to accept within itself, [especially since society is led by and revolves around women and reproduction, by default, one must note and all the reality versus illlusion and love versus hate that is involved with that, especially if we choose unwisely or suffer heavy influences in society that prevent us from loving and being healthy].

    How like Marley's Time Will Tell (the song itself of that name), things will NOT end well if we tolerate these evils within our midst.

    Outkast also mention how natural, healthy sex is portrayed as bad. How it should be real and true, and fun (innocent and sexy) but is perverted and untrue, selfish, unfaithful and love-free [implied due to the negative influences making people - women especially given that they are the axis of the whole thing - egotistical and cold, and how hard this is as a man trying to be real and healthy].

    Finally, Outkast mention that one way these evils are perpetrated is by lying about what is evil (telling the truth) versus what is genuinely evil in reality (harmful over-reliance on dreams whilst evil goes harming in reality without any resistance to it). So, ironically, he's the clean one for telling the truth, and the liars are the unclean ones, helping perpetuate the evil systems that cause all the above ills in the world.

    "But they be making it seem
    That my music and crime are a team
    But I'm speaking the truth not dreams
    So what in the fuck they mean
    My lyrics ain't clean"

    This is rapped with increasing anger, line-by-line, and the song ends there on exactly the right note.
    We should be angry about this corruption. It has gone WAY too far and harmed and brutalised exponentially more people than could ever be put down to natural economic forces and collateral damage. Ask a Mexican victim of drug violence.

    Who made it like this?

    Outkast and Bob Marley were real people in the truest sense of that word, and their honesty moves me deeply, still, to this day. Spread the word - if people can see things via the music, it will help.

    The science on the other hand, speaks for itself.