Cannabis Policy:
Moving Beyond Stalemate

Extended Summary
Prepared for UNGASS Vienna-March-2009
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“That which is prohibited cannot easily be regulated”

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 been fundamentally transformed over the last half-century, partially due to cannabis having increasingly become part of the youth culture and the illicit markets that emerged as a result. But the strenuous efforts to enforce prohibition through policing and quasi-military operations against illicit growing and sale have 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, penalties and enforcement have diminished de-facto elsewhere. Substantive change is hindered, however, by a rigid international system of regulation often out of touch with the realities surrounding contemporary cannabis use and the social harms associated with it.

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. It was 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 UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs has set up a ‘Ministerial Segment’ meeting for March 2009 to discuss the conclusions drawn from the review of the last 10 years of international drug control. The Beckley Foundation, a ECOSOC accredited NGO, will be presenting the Global Cannabis Commission Report in the margins of that meeting.

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