Executive Summary


in Cannabis Policy and the Cannabis Commission

The History of Cannabis Use and Prohibition
Cannabis came under the control of the international narcotics treaties as an afterthought in an era when use of the drug was confined to relatively small groups in a scattering of cultures. But the situation has transformed over the last half-century, with the use of cannabis increasingly becoming part of youth culture. Huge international and national illicit markets have arisen to meet this demand. Strenuous efforts to enforce prohibition through policing and quasi-military operations against illicit growing and sale have largely failed. Meanwhile, the efforts in themselves create substantial anguish and social harms.

In the United States, for example, about three-quarters of a million citizens are arrested every year for cannabis possession, and in certain producer/ transit countries, such as Mexico, the War on Drugs, of which cannabis is a part, has led to a virtual state of war near the US border. While rigorous enforcement of the conventions without consideration of alternative paths continues in many countries, in other countries penalties and enforcement have diminished de-facto, or in law. Substantive changes are hindered however by a rigid international system of regulation which is out of touch with the realities surrounding contemporary cannabis use, and the social harms associated with its enforcement.

The United Nations Strategic Drug Policy Review Beyond the International Treaties
In 1998 the international community agreed to a 10-year programme of activity on the control of illegal drug use and markets at a United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) in New York, characterised by the slogan: “a drug free world, we can do it”. A commitment was made to review the programs progress. Clearly, the international community will not be able to report unequivocal success, as drugs are purer, cheaper, and more widely available than ever before. The laws themselves are often enforced arbitrarily, leading to the discrimination of minorities – and nowhere is this more evident than with cannabis, which is used by a conservative estimate of 166 million people worldwide. There is increasing disagreement between governments on the appropriate policies to adopt. It is therefore essential that the process of review in 2009 be as transparent as possible, and that experts from the relevant fields have the maximum opportunity to engage with the government officials and politicians who will ultimately decide on the future directions of drug policy.
The Beckley Foundation
The Beckley Foundation, a UN-accredited NGO, has been an influential force in bringing together senior drug policy stakeholders to discuss ways of reforming drug policies in order to lead to more effective management of psychoactive substances in the future. Its director Amanda Feilding raised the issue that even though cannabis is by far the most widely used illegal drug, (accounting for 166 million users out of a total of 200 million users of all illegal drugs), it has only ever held a relatively marginal position in international drug policy discussions. For this reason the Beckley Foundation commissioned a team of the world’s leading drug policy analysts to prepare an overview of the latest scientific evidence surrounding cannabis and the policies that control its use.

The policy context for this undertaking was the UNGASS 2009 review and evaluation of current drug policy control measures. Amongst the many questions the UN will address in relation to this review, two are particularly relevant to the Beckley Foundation’s Global Cannabis Commission Report:

  • Is a reform of the UN Drug Conventions needed?
  • What kind of improvements in the functioning of the UN drug control system could be expected or aimed for?

The UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs has set up a ‘Ministerial Segment’ meeting in March 2009 to discuss the conclusions drawn from the review of the last 10 years of international drug control. The Beckley Foundation’s Cannabis Commission Report will be presented in the margins of that meeting.

In reviewing the evidence produced by the report Cannabis Policy: Moving beyond Stalemate, the authors arrive at some striking conclusions, many of which directly challenge the international status quo on cannabis policy. The report covers the following issues:

1. The impact of cannabis on physical and mental health
Cannabis use can be harmful and, as with all drugs, the likelihood of experiencing harms is dependent upon the intensity and frequency with which the drug is used, and the age at which onset of use begins. However, studies which have rated the harms of cannabis use have consistently found it to be less harmful than most other widely used recreational substances, both legal and illegal.

2. The Cannabis Prohibition Regime.

Cannabis control policies, whether liberal or draconian, have little influence on the prevalence of consumption, and have been unable to make the drug prohibitively expensive. Cannabis is easily produced around the world, making its eradication effectively impossible. Although cannabis is more commonly traded within social networks than other illegal drugs, there are still illegal markets worth tens of billions of dollars to organised crime. These markets sustain significant levels of violence in certain countries. There is no evidence that more rigorous enforcement has a significant deterrent effect, whilst there is extensive evidence that such enforcement causes considerable harms to those arrested.

3. Future Options

Although signatories of the international drug control treaties are formally required to criminalise the production, distribution, sale, use and possession of cannabis, a number of countries have adopted alternative enforcement regimes with less punitive interventions than currently offered by the full prohibition regime:

  • Prohibition with Cautioning or Diversion: ‘Depenalization’. Under some regimes where cannabis use is formally prohibited and punishable by law, informal or intermediate justice measures – e.g. cautioning or diversion to alternative measures, including treatment – are applied at various stages of the criminal justice system. Cautioning involves a written notice and/or record taking. Diversion measures are formal procedures that aim to shift offenders to education, treatment, or other forms of non-custodial interventions.
  • Prohibition with Civil Penalties: ‘Decriminalization’. Under this reform regime, possession or use remains explicitly outlawed, however, legal control frameworks have been implemented in which specific forms of cannabis possession (typically limited to possession of cannabis for personal use) are exempt from criminal sanctions. Instead, a non-criminal punishment, a fine, or some other administrative sanction is levied, with no further criminal consequences. Activities relating to larger-scale possession, production, sale or supply of cannabis remain subject to conventional criminal control procedures and penalties.
  • Partial Prohibition: Under this type of cannabis-control reform, personal cannabis use and possession are no longer illegal, but commercial activities such as large-scale possession, production and supply of large amounts of the drug are prohibited. The legality of personal use is usually limited to adults, and often excludes so-called ‘aggravating circumstances’ which are specifically defined (e.g. use near a school or involving minors, etc.)

Such regimes can be brought about by two fundamentally different approaches:

  • De facto legalization: Cannabis use is prohibited by criminal law, yet formalized procedures of enforcement practice create a situation in which personal cannabis use is not punished by any punitive interventions.
  • De jure legalization: The legality of personal cannabis use is defined by the letter of the respective law. However, De Jure legalization contravenes the 1961 United Nations Convention.

While a number of countries have implemented reform measures aiming to relax cannabis-use control, none have addressed the issue of supply. These issues are inevitably linked, since the use of cannabis requires that the product is obtained, either by one’s own cultivation, or by purchase from a supplier. The link between use and supply thus remains a major policy challenge.

4. The Impacts of Cannabis Policy Reforms

Reforms reducing or removing criminal sanctions for the use and possession of cannabis have been shown not to lead to an increase in the prevalence of use or harms. Such reforms go some way towards addressing the adverse social impact of cannabis prohibition, although any benefits can be undermined by law enforcement practices, such as “net widening”. Enforcement of such reformed regimes is less resource-intensive, enabling the re-allocation of these resources to more pressing problems.

5. Beyond the Current Drug Conventions

Any country wishing to go beyond the present constraints of the international drug control system, short of simply passing conflicting domestic legislation and bearing the international condemnation which would ensue, would need to renegotiate its relationship with these international conventions. Of the various options for reform at the international level, the most likely path forward would be for individual countries to denounce the international conventions and re-accede with a reservation for cannabis. Alternatively, a group of like-minded countries could work together to negotiate and adopt a new international convention specifically for cannabis . Such a convention could broadly follow the Framework Convention on Tobacco. Either of these paths forward would likely be met with vociferous opposition. Any country pursuing these reforms would therefore be well advised to frame their position in terms of such ideals and principles as human rights and liberties, proportionality and the minimisation of harms.

6. Paths Forward from the Impasse

The current international drug policies have not proven effective at eliminating drug use, and have many adverse consequences for those who get caught up in their provisions. The International Conventions restrict the ability of signatory countries to adopt new cannabis policies and laws based on the available evidence. Furthermore, they also restrict the accumulation of new evidence to inform the development of new systems of control which may be more appropriate to the modern world. There is a clear need for change, and yet the international drug control system seems increasingly paralyzed and immobile. There is no doubt moving forward will be difficult, but it is not impossible. In this report, our aim has been to draw on the available evidence to offer some possible paths forward to a more realistic and effective global regime for cannabis control. Almost fifty years after the adoption of an unequivocal international prohibition on cannabis in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, we face a very different world.

The Global Cannabis Commission Report forms a blueprint for nations seeking to develop a more rational and effective approach to the control of cannabis. It provides a review of the issues which must be considered by policymakers in developing more effective cannabis policies that minimise the harms associated with its use and control. This report highlights those aspects of the international cannabis laws in need of revision and lays out ways in which countries can gain greater autonomy to pursue cannabis policies that better reflect their own individual circumstances.

The report ends with its Conclusions and Recommendations which summarizes the findings of the report and provides a map of alternative ways forward. A New Draft Framework Convention on Cannabis Control is also provided.

The Authors of the report are Professors Robin Room, Peter Reuter, Wayne Hall, Benedikt Fischer, and Simon Lenton.

Amanda Feilding, Lady Neidpath. Director of the Beckley Foundation

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