64th session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, 12-16 April 2021
Agenda Item 5: Implementation of the International Drug Control Treaties
John Walsh: Thank you, madam chair, for this opportunity to speak. My name is John Walsh and I direct the drug policy program at the Washington Office on Latin America.
I’m pleased to address this 64th session of the CND regarding agenda item 5, ‘implementation of the international drug control treaties.’
I’ll focus here on cannabis—a topic that’s been center stage in Vienna in recent years—including last December’s vote by CND to remove cannabis from Schedule IV of the Single Convention.
It’s probably a safe bet that many delegations now wish that cannabis issues would simply go away—or at least take a back seat to what they consider to be more pressing concerns.
But the bruising battle over the belated recognition of the medical value of cannabis is not likely to be the last of it.
Nearly immediately after the vote removing cannabis from Schedule IV, the INCB set out to create guidelines for cannabis for medical and scientific purposes.
To be sure, the burgeoning medical cannabis field calls for a fresh look at the treaty system’s reporting requirements and estimates.
But the INCB’s draft guidelines suggest an unhealthy—and unfounded—obsession with restricting cannabis medicine to a narrow pharmaceutical model—at the cost of patients’ access to medicine.
Why does the INCB insist on its baseless position that only the use of cannabinoids in pharmaceutical preparations constitutes legitimate medical use—as opposed to use of natural cannabis products?
But an even larger challenge looms to the treaty system—the adoption by several countries of legally regulated markets for adult-use or ‘recreational’ cannabis.
The drug treaties do provide some latitude, but the legal regulation of adult-use cannabis clearly does not fit within the bounds of the conventions as they stand.
As the INCB’s latest Annual Report puts it: “…legalization and regulation of controlled substances for non-medical purposes is a clear violation of the international drug control legal framework…”
Still, some countries have already enacted national laws to regulate cannabis for adult use, and other countries appear poised to take similar steps in the foreseeable future—mostly in the Americas and in Europe.
An impasse therefore seems to be looming: a growing number and variety of countries determined to adopt models of regulated access to cannabis for non-medical uses, colliding with a treaty system that provides zero space for such a policy.
But polarization and paralysis are not inevitable.
Even if consensus positions regarding cannabis are beyond reach in Vienna, the conventions themselves—and international treaty law more broadly—do provide avenues for accommodating change without splintering the system entirely.
In this spirit, I conclude by urging Member States, UN agencies and civil society to heed the INCB President’s recent call for, and I quote, “reflection on possible alternative and additional agreements, instruments and forms of cooperation to respond to the changing nature and magnitude of the drug problem.”
Thank you for the honor to address you today.