Uruguay sets path for Canada on marijuana legalization within international treaties

A vendor trims marijuana with scissors during the annual 4-20 cannabis culture celebration at Sunset Beach in Vancouver on April 20, 2017.
A vendor trims marijuana with scissors during the annual 4-20 cannabis culture celebration at Sunset Beach in Vancouver on April 20, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

OTTAWA – Uruguay‘s envoy to Ottawa says his small South American country has opened up some breathing room for marijuana legalization within international treaties that have outlawed recreational pot for decades.

Ambassador Martin Vidal credits his country, the first to legalize recreational cannabis at a national level, as something of a trailblazer for countries like Canada that are planning to embark on the same path.

The Trudeau government introduced legislation in April with a goal of legalizing and regulating the use of recreational marijuana by July 2018.

Canada and Uruguay must comply with three United Nations drug-control treaties, to which each is a party. The conventions criminalize the possession and production of non-medical cannabis.

The ambassador said Uruguay, which first passed its marijuana legislation in 2013, has spent several years persuading partners that legalization places a strong emphasis on public health and human rights.

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Vidal says the challenging task has forced Uruguay to put its international credibility on the line – but he insists there have been small signs of movement.

“We see not that the tide is turning, but the international community’s allowing this issue to be part of the discussion,” Vidal said at Uruguay’s embassy in Ottawa.

“Considering the Canadian process is a few years behind (Uruguay’s), they will probably come to this discussion with some very difficult first discussions already passed.”

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Canada must withdraw from treaties outlawing marijuana by July 1

While Vidal acknowledged the progress so far has only been “very minor,” he’s encouraged because it can take many decades for rules of this nature to budge.

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Progress, he added, has come in the form of more countries showing a willingness to discuss the issue. The wording of declarations from international forums has also shown increasing openness, he said.

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Vidal said Uruguay’s goal has not been to change the minds of other countries about cannabis, but to get them to accept that there are other ways to approach drug control.

Along the way, Vidal said Uruguay hasn’t tried to impose any law changes and has only called on member states to allow for more room to manoeuvre within the current legislation.

“Some other countries have joined us in this discussion and others in the future – maybe Canada will be one of them – will find that it’s not that the path is already clear, but we have facilitated a lot because we worked very hard in the last years to introduce this perspective,” said Vidal, whose country is home to about 3.4 million people – about one-tenth Canada’s population.

Ottawa has also emphasized the importance of legalization for public-health reasons. The government’s primary goals are keeping pot out of the hands of youth and marijuana profits out of the black market.

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But before Canada can develop a regulated, recreational marijuana market many issues still need to be addressed – from distribution, to taxation, to public awareness, to policing.

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The to-do list also includes navigating international treaties.

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A spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said when it comes to legalized pot the feds are examining Canada’s international commitments.

“We are committed to working with our global partners to best promote public health and combat illicit drug trafficking,” Alex Lawrence wrote in an email.

“Canada remains fully compliant with its obligations under the international drug treaties at this time.”

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Political rivals and legal experts have urged the Liberal government to explain its plans for three United Nations drug-control conventions. Some have warned that Canada’s international reputation is at stake and have called on Ottawa to withdraw from the treaties rather than breach them.

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Canada and Uruguay are currently party to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances and the 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.

A briefing note prepared for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and obtained early last year by The Canadian Press said Canada would have to find a way to essentially tell the world how it plans to conform to its treaty obligations.

Canada has also received direct input from Uruguay, which has shared its legalization experience with Ottawa. The countries’ co-operation on pot will continue with an upcoming video conference between officials to discuss Canada’s legislation, Vidal said.

“There are lessons to be learned.”

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