The United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (SCND), adopted in 1961, is the primary reason that cannabis remains illegal throughout the world. At the U.S.'s insistence, cannabis was placed into Schedule IV of the convention, the most severe and restrictive category.
The United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (SCND), adopted in 1961, is the primary reason that cannabis remains illegal throughout the world. At the U.S.’s insistence, cannabis was placed into Schedule IV of the convention, the most severe and restrictive category – designed for drugs that are “particularly liable to abuse and to produce ill effects”, whose “liability is not offset by substantial therapeutic advantages”.
Specific references to cannabis in articles of the SCND
There have been various proposals and attempts to amend the SCND, but simply removing cannabis from Schedule IV and placing it into a less restrictive schedule would not solve the problem entirely. All references to cannabis would also have to be removed from any articles of the convention that mention it, specifically article 28:
CONTROL OF CANNABIS:
1. If a Party permits the cultivation of the cannabis plant for the production of cannabis or cannabis resin, it shall apply thereto the system of controls as provided in article 23 respecting the control of the opium poppy.
2. This Convention shall not apply to the cultivation of the cannabis plant exclusively for industrial purposes (fibre and seed) or horticultural purposes.
3. The Parties shall adopt such measures as may be necessary to prevent the misuse of, and illicit traffic in, the leaves of the cannabis plant.
Article 49 also refers to cannabis, and allows nations to exempt “the use of cannabis, cannabis resin, extracts and tinctures of cannabis for non-medical purposes”. However, this is subject to these restrictions:
(a) The activities mentioned in paragraph 1 may be authorized only to the extent that they were traditional in the territories in respect of which the reservation is made, and were there permitted on 1 January 1961. And (f) the use of cannabis for other than medical and scientific purposes must be discontinued as soon as possible but in any case within twenty-five years from the coming into force of this Convention as provided in paragraph 1 of article 41
Article 22 (“Special provision applicable to cultivation”) technically allows cultivation, as it encourages ruling parties to enforce prohibition if it is “the most suitable measure, in its opinion, for protecting the public health and welfare and preventing the diversion of drugs into the illicit traffic”.
Bolivia’s withdrawal from the SCND
Bolivia’s rejected proposal to delete article 49 of the Convention, “coca leaf chewing must be abolished”, led to their withdrawal from the convention in 2011, a move which was formalised on January 1st 2012. The country’s international treaty obligations, as set out within their own constitution, require a renegotiation of any international law that stands in contrary to national policy. As of January 2013, despite widespread opposition, Bolivia obtained special exemption for the chewing of coca leaves. The country has now re-acceded to the SCND on the proviso that the exemption is upheld.
While this exemption was obtained in order to specifically protect Bolivia’s indigenous populations, many of which have utilised coca leaf in traditional practices for thousands of years, there is some hope that the precedent will allow for future amendments on the basis of cultural choice. However, when operating within a culture in which the status quo is generally against cannabis, it is difficult to argue for exemptions on a cultural basis.
It is interesting to note that the U.S. organized opposition to Bolivia’s proposal, convening several countries “to rally against what they perceived to be an undermining of the ‘integrity’ of the treaty and its guiding principle to limit the trade and use of narcotic drugs exclusively to medical and scientific purposes.”
Implications of legalisation trend in the USA
Raymond Yans, president of International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) expressed concerns over the recent ballots in Colorado and Washington, stating that allowing the sale of cannabis would violate the SCND and “pose a great threat to public health and the well-being of society far beyond those states”. However, the INCB is a body responsible for monitoring compliance with the SCND, and has little power to influence political decisions in any country save through rhetoric alone.
The USA is in an awkward position. Non-compliance with the convention is a risky measure in terms of international relations, yet overriding the will of the people may prove even more disastrous. Allowing medical cannabis is not prohibited under international law, permitting many countries to operate medical cannabis industries without violating the SCND.
However, recreational use is another story. As the only exemptions thus far obtained have been argued on a cultural basis, it is not clear exactly what approach is best when attempting to remove cannabis from the SCND entirely. If enough member nations of the SCND legalise cannabis or wish to pursue such policies, it is possible that consensus could be reached, allowing cannabis to be removed from the international schedule.
Otherwise, the only option for any nation is to withdraw from the convention. This may lead to specific exemptions for those countries that have a strong case, but is unlikely to lead to an eventual rescheduling move to affect all countries equally.
How will the USA balance its international and domestic obligations?
The USA’s handling of this matter will be of global importance. Will the federal government pursue legal action against the newly-legal states? Will they knowingly violate the treaty? Or will they avoid legal action against the states involved and simply raid recreational outlets, criminalising the operators as with many licensed medical cannabis dispensaries?
The SCND cannot enforce the treaty if the state refuses to comply. However, a nation may be forced to withdraw if national law contravenes the treaty, but may then renegotiate their re-accession. It is possible for the USA to follow this course, and indeed it appears to be the only sensible remaining option.
As the USA has historically been so instrumental in the severity of the restrictions against cannabis, the opposition to this is likely to be extremely high, as the original opponents still exist in one form or another. The risk of international embarrassment over such a dramatic U-turn will also be high. It may lead the world to question American judgement on a good many other issues as well, such as foreign policy, and that may be a risk the USA is unprepared to take.