The World Health Organization said Friday in Vienna that it needed more time to decide if marijuana should be removed from international drug treaties.
The decision closes a path, for now, to solving an awkward situation that Canada finds itself in internationally after legalizing recreational marijuana.
Canada has signed three UN drug treaties, one dating from 1961, pledging to ban marijuana (along with other drugs). As we know, the federal Liberals were elected in 2015 on a platform of legalizing recreational marijuana, and that became a reality three years later.
The Liberals faced questions about what it planned to do about the treaties as legalization was being debated — a July 1, 2017 deadline to withdraw from them came and went.
In the end, Ottawa decided to live with the contradiction of staying within the treaties and legalizing marijuana at the same time.
Removing pot from the treaties, where it’s now listed a Schedule 1 drug, or one of the world’s most dangerous, would resolve the problem.
But conservative countries led by Russia and China are blocking a more tolerant approach to cannabis, says Juan Fernandez of the London-based International Drug Policy Consortium.
“Ever since Canada enacted its legal regulation of cannabis, there has been a lot of pushback from traditionally reactionary countries at CND – Russia, China, Pakistan, Egypt, Singapore – against any move to confer any legitimacy on cannabis.”
“We’re quite perplexed because this suggests that there was intervention from the highest levels, either from the WHO or somewhere else, to postpone the recommendations.”
“It’s a bit unheard of, to be honest.”
The problem is that few countries have a reason to push for the change so far, says Deepak Anand, a Canadian who was in Vienna for the meeting.
“On the federal level, there are only two countries that have legalized for non-medical. There isn’t enough of a willingness at the UN level to push this agenda. I think we’ll get to that, but I think we’re several years away from that happening.”
Anand is an executive at Cannabis Compliance Inc., a Mississauga, Ont.-based consulting company.
Fernandez sees a rescheduling of cannabis — moving it to a list of less dangerous drugs — as more likely than dropping it from the treaties entirely.
“They could down-schedule from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2 or 3.”
“It is extremely unlikely that they will completely deschedule cannabis. Judging from the behaviour of WHO, that’s not really the way they would operate.”
After Friday’s decision, it’s less likely that cannabis’s status in the treaties will change before a meeting in 2020, he says.
Canada and Uruguay, countries that have both legalized marijuana, have seats on the CND — along with Russia and China. Uruguay’s seat expires in 2019, and Canada’s in 2021.
“We’re going to be extremely limited, in that anything that we produce on the recreational side is not going to be allowed to be exported for recreational purposes,” Anand says.
“It’s quite limiting from an international trade perspective.”
Fernandez worries that treaties that are completely inflexible may end up being widely ignored.
“If more and more countries keep doing this, and at the same time CND refuses to address this reality in a meaningful way, then the danger is for the treaty system to become irrelevant. If a treaty isn’t capable of responding to the realities on the ground, then what is it worth?”