U.N. Treaties and the Legalization of Drugs

Special to The Narco News Bulletin

March 2003.




U.N. Treaties and the Legalization of Drugs

By Peter Webster

As dissatisfaction with the results of drug prohibition mounts once again,
it is natural to expect that analysts of the situation will propose a wide
variety of ways to “improve” legislation, enforcement, addiction treatment,
and other currently popular “remedies” for illegal drug use. The scenario
is not new, although recently the perceived failure of prohibitionist
policies seems to be reaching new heights.

With each outbreak of recognition of prohibition’s faults, however, a few
observers dare to question the very concept of prohibition, trying to
convince authorities and the public at large that perhaps prohibitionist
policy is itself the root of the problems we have habitually ascribed to
the prohibited substances. This view rejects in principle the idea that
prohibition can be “fixed” or “improved,” its results made at least
somewhat less disastrous by tinkering with the details of prohibitionist

The current outbreak of disillusionment with prohibition seems also to be
producing unprecedented numbers of critics in this camp. Not only
independent researchers and writers, but notable political figures in
several countries have suggested outright that prohibition’s Golden Age is
over, and in the interests of public health, control of powerful and
world-wide criminal syndicates, protection of human rights and other
necessary goals, a complete reversal of prohibition is not only justified
but obligatory and long overdue.

Such currents of dissent exist widely today not only in European societies
known for their pragmatism and tolerance, but also in countries hard hit by
the negative results of the U.S. Drug War.

Parliamentarians, governors, police, and even presidents in several
countries of Latin America have thus joined in with long-enduring reform
voices in Europe and North America in calling for a repeal of drug
prohibition, recognizing that only a system of controlled legalization can
provide a measure of control over the manufacture and access to drugs.

The U.S. federal government is likely to be on the caboose of this train of
reform, however, for several reasons that need not be examined here. The
U.S., with the assistance of its handmaiden U.N. drug control agencies, is
instead trying to reinforce drug prohibition and has cajoled, intimidated,
and threatened no small number of nations that have made moves away from
U.S./U.N. dictates. A major tool in this process has been the U.N.
international drug treaties that were essentially forced upon their
signatories by the U.S. These treaties today provide the U.S. federal
authorities with an immediate rejoinder to any moves or even suggestions
for drug policy reform that might tend to discredit U.S. prohibitionist policy.

For example, on August 16, 2001, the Jamaica Observer reported on the
results of an enquiry by its National Ganja Commission, which recommended
“the decriminalization of ganja for personal, private use by adults and for
use as a sacrament for religious purposes.”

Within hours, the U.S. Embassy was already “hinting” that Jamaica could
face certification problems during its next annual narcotics review:

“The US government will consider Jamaica’s adherence to its commitments
under the 1988 UN Drug Convention when making its determination under the
annual narcotics certification review,” US Embassy spokesman Michael
Koplovsky said.

A similar threat was issued by U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson in response
to a legalization debate in the Colombian Congress, an event reinforced by
a “Historic Resolution” by the National Assembly of Colombian Governors
recommending an end to drug prohibition.

Pressure to reform cannabis laws in Britain has also been mounting during
the past year, and although such direct threats to a major U.S. ally were
not immediately obvious, a story from the U.K.’s GUARDIAN newspaper
indicated that reformers in the U.K. had been anticipating U.S. objections
based on the U.N. treaties:

Pubdate: Tue, 28 Aug 2001 Source: Guardian, The (UK)


Special Report: Drugs In Britain

A reform of Britain’s drug laws could be introduced without the government
breaching its international obligations under UN drug control conventions,
according to a legal study published today….

The conclusions of the study, entitled European Drug Laws: the Room for
Manoeuvre, are important because opponents of drug law reform have argued
that Britain could not liberalise its drug laws even if it wanted to
because it would breach the UN treaty.

I would like to suggest, however, that there exists an important loophole
in the 1988 U.N. Treaty that would not only allow some leeway for countries
to “ease drug laws” and soften the impact of radical prohibition, but to
declare the treaty entirely inapplicable and void.

The UNDCP World Drug Report (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997: p185)

“…[none of the] three international drug Conventions insist on the
establishment of drug consumption per se as a punishable offense. Only the
1988 Convention clearly requires parties to establish as criminal offenses
under law the possession, purchase or cultivation of controlled drugs for
the purpose of non-medical, personal consumption, UNLESS TO DO SO WOULD BE
SYSTEMS.” (Capitals added)

It would appear that if the highest court of a nation would rule that the
prohibition of a drug such as cannabis is unconstitutional, it would
automatically render null and void all the problematic restrictions of the
U.N. treaties in question. This is the very road that Canada appears to be
following, with a Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of
cannabis prohibition expected later this year.

Any nation that recognizes that drug prohibition infringes human rights,
produces millions of victims, threatens the world economy, creates powerful
international criminal syndicates, and thus constitutes what may well be
seen someday as a crime against humanity, should seriously consider
employing this loophole, declaring prohibitionist policy to be
unconstitutional and abusive of human rights guaranteed by national and
international documents and treaties that must take precedence over the
U.N. drug control treaties. A group of nations which, as a bloc, issued
such a resolution, might well provide the needed catalyst that would topple
a century-long folly and lead the way to intelligent and effective drug
policy for societies the world over.

Peter Webster is Review Editor for the International Journal of Drug Policy – the Official Journal of the International Harm
Reduction Association. For subscriptions:

He is also co-Webmaster of the DRCNet Online Library of Drug Policy – – and The Psychedelic Library –