Canada is on track to become the second country and the first G7 member to legalize and regulate cannabis for non-medical purposes (Uruguay enacted cannabis regulation in 2013). The UN drug control treaties expressly disallow the legal regulation of cannabis for non-medical uses. However, according to international drug policy experts at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Transnational Institute (TNI), who testified last week before Canada’s Senate, there is a path forward with regard to the country’s drug treaty obligations.
In their remarks before the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade on April 19, John Walsh, WOLA Drug Policy Program Director, and Martin Jelsma, Drugs and Democracy Programme Director at TNI, left no doubt that moving ahead with cannabis regulation will place Canada out of compliance with its obligations under the UN drug treaties. But they also emphasized that Canada has viable options for aligning its impending cannabis law reform with its international legal obligations—pointing in particular to the procedure of inter se modification. Walsh and Jelsma are among the co-authors of Balancing Treaty Stability and Change, a landmark report exploring the inter se option in depth, launched during the March 2018 session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, Austria.
Walsh’s overall message to the Committee was one of reassurance regarding the path that Canada is taking, noting that Uruguay enjoys continued good standing in the international community, more than four years after having enacted its cannabis regulation law. Walsh also underscored that time is on Canada’s side, since a number of other countries—including the United States of America—are heading in the same direction of seeking to legally regulate their cannabis markets. As Walsh told the Committee, “Already one in five Americans lives in a state that has voted to legalize, more ballot initiatives are on the way, and public opinion is increasingly in favor of legalization, which has appeal across the political and ideological spectrum.”
Jelsma outlined the rationale and international legal basis for the inter se treaty modification procedure, and described the advantages for Canada and other like-minded countries of taking the coordinated, collective approach required by an inter se agreement, rather than acting unilaterally and in isolation from one another. “An inter se agreement on cannabis regulation would allow a group of countries to modify certain treaty provisions amongst themselves alone and appears as a legitimate safety valve, and perhaps under current circumstances, the most elegant way out for a group of countries to collectively derogate from certain cannabis provisions,” explained Jelsma.
Both expert witnesses made clear that cannabis regulation and the surrounding treaty tensions are not merely technical matters, but rather profoundly moral questions regarding the aims and impacts of drug control policies. At the hearing’s conclusion, when questioned directly about the morality of legalizing cannabis, Walsh took the opportunity to drive the point home. “In my view, legal regulation is responsible, and in that sense an ethical and moral response to a problem that will never be solved, a dilemma that’s always real, but something that can be managed better or worse,” Walsh noted. “I’m persuaded that a regulatory approach is a better approach than simply leaving the market in the hands of criminal enterprise.”