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UN Says Cannabis Legalization Challenges Its Drug Control Conventions

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: Mar 15, 2023   
Person rolling cannabis cigarette on their leg.

Image credit: iStock

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The United Nations (UN) says that the trend of recreational cannabis legalization “represents a significant challenge” to its drug control conventions.

In its latest report, the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) also criticized jurisdictions with legal cannabis for failing to protect young people from cannabis marketing.

With these criticisms in mind, the INCB says it remains committed to “fulfilling its mandate” to aid governments in implementing the UN drug conventions to help safeguard “the health and well-being of humankind.”

Legal cannabis, criticized

Published on March 9, the INCB’s latest report assessed the current state of global illicit drug markets and how drug use is changing.

The report’s first chapter focuses on cannabis and concludes with some significant criticisms of legal cannabis models.

“The quickly expanding cannabis industry and other business interests have striven for lifting the controls on cannabis use with a view to making a commercial profit,” the report writes.

“This has contributed to the normalization and trivialization of cannabis use and, consequently, to reduced perceptions of harm associated with cannabis consumption.”

The INCB says this normalization effect represents “a growing challenge” to the UN’s drug conventions, such as its landmark 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which advocates for “punishable offences” for recreational use.

However, the UN board do note that one progressive cannabis policy, decriminalization, can fit into the 1961 convention, with caveats.

“The ‘decriminalization’ approach, as well as the ‘depenalization’ approach, can be considered consistent with the conventions as far as it respects the obligation to limit the use of drugs to medical and scientific purposes and under the condition that it remains within certain limits set by the conventions,” the report writes.

After this half-approval of decriminalization, the INCB ultimately advocates that, instead of legalizing recreational cannabis, governments around the world reduce the burden on their criminal justice systems by “applying alternative sanctions” and protecting the young with better education and prevention programs.

As for those jurisdictions that have already legalized recreational cannabis, the UN board says these areas need more communication efforts to “address the declining perceptions of harm resulting from the use of cannabis”.


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