Just last week the UN hosted one of the most important meetings on drugs in decades. Held in New York, the meeting was attended by scientists, doctors, drug policy experts and a range of politicians from around the globe. For the most part, the announcements that were made essentially reaffirmed what we have been told for some years now. We must be hard on drugs, crackdown on the gangs supplying them, and limit the amount of illicit narcotics that are making it onto our streets. This was nothing new and, to be quite frank, nothing exciting. One rather interesting thing that did come out of the conference however, was Canada’s new stance on drug policy, and cannabis laws in particular.
Straying away from the typical views and ideas on drug policy that were brought to the forefront of political thinking during the ‘War on Drugs’, Canada has announced that it will legalise cannabis, with their new laws coming into effect next spring. The idea was originally part of now Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau’s manifesto when he was running for office just last year. It played a major role in his election, gathering support from many citizens all over the country. The liberal leader is now making sure that he makes good on his promise and his Health Minister announced the plans to the UN this week.
This, along with the fact that cannabis has recently been legalised or decriminalised in Portugal, Uruguay and several states across the US, shows a changing attitude in the world towards the drug. So why are we suddenly coming round to the idea of changing our stance on cannabis? And how do these changes fit in with international treaties that require us to regard marijuana as illegal, and wage war against it by any means necessary?
As far as Canada goes, they have announced their reasons for the imminent legalisation of the drug with pride, and the population of the country has got behind them, perhaps realising that the way to fight drugs and all the bad things that go with them may not be to wage ‘war’ against them, but rather to make sure the government, not the gangs, has full control over them. The Canadian Health Minister made it clear during her announcement that the main aims of the move were to improve the health of the nation, make cannabis harder to obtain for the country’s young, and to fight crime. She stated that “it is the best way to protect our youth while enhancing public safety”.
The bold move to reform drug policy will hopefully have the desired social effects, however the shockwaves from the Trudeau government’s reforms could resonate right around the world, causing UN treaties to essentially become ineffectual and toothless, or be changed. The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was a treaty put into place at the beginning of America’s terribly unsuccessful and damaging ‘War on Drugs’. It essentially forced every nation to fall in line with US drug policy and the ratings that they gave to each drug.
Cannabis was classed as a ‘Schedule 1’ drug, meaning it was seen as one of the most dangerous on the market, alongside heroin and cocaine. While this treaty was initially pretty rigid, the past few years have seen some countries find some breathing space while still being subject to the treaty, as can be seen in places where cannabis is now decriminalised, meaning that it is still illegal but the possession or sale of the drug isn’t classed as a criminal action.
Canada’s move to entirely legalise cannabis however is uncharted territory and it will be interesting to see what effects it has on treaties such as this one. Experts have wondered whether the nation will leave the treaty, or indeed push for reform on drug policy at international level, however as time goes on, this seems less likely. A report from the London School of Economics suggested that “The conventions have traditionally been viewed as a useful coalescing mechanism for international cooperation and therefore deserving public declamations of respect and adherence.” This shows that there is in fact some room for countries to draw up their own interpretations of the treaty and adjust their own drug policy accordingly.
Canada’s health minister, Hilary Geller, seemed to back this up when she stated that “Canada will seek to align its objectives for a new marijuana regime with the objectives of the international drug control framework and the spirit of the conventions.” This lends to the probability that they will not try to withdraw from the treaty or expect any change to drug policy from the UN itself.
With new drug policy, specifically regarding cannabis, being implemented in many places across Europe, the US and now Canada it look as though America’s long and costly War on Drugs is coming to an abrupt end. The new stance on drug laws seems to be far more progressive and in line with what has been recommended by experts, but ignored by politicians, for some time now. The idea that legalisation or decriminalisation will actually allow a country to better deal with its drug problems and crime rates, while making money from the tax of said drugs at the same time, is one that holds a lot of weight. Not only are experts saying that it is the way forward but the public seem to agree. This is the dawning of a new age in drug policy and only time will tell how successful these changes will be.