Daniel Bear is a professor in criminal justice at the School of Social and Community Services, Humber Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning
The war on drugs is dead. The only remnants of the once dominant paradigm exist in the form of three United Nations treaties controlling drugs. As the UN begins the Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS) on Tuesday, it is time for Canada to exercise the often ignored flexibility contained within these treaties, and move forward with the legalization and regulation of cannabis.
Though international drug control treaties have been around since 1907, it was not until the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs that the world coalesced around one set of rules to prevent distribution and use of narcotic drugs except for medical and scientific purposes. While the "drug war" as we knew it claimed its legitimacy from this treaty (and its companions passed in 1971 and 1988), such heavy-handed responses were not necessarily the intention. Countries were only required to make possession of cannabis illegal in the 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs. But even then, at the height of the crack epidemics, no one could have imagined the self-inflicted brutality that would emerge to combat drugs in the final decades of the 20th century.
It is now time for the international community to acknowledge the beginning of a new era, and provide support for countries trying new ways to regulate drugs in a safe and responsible manner.
But reform at the international level seems unlikely. While many countries seem intent on retaining the status quo of prohibition – despite decades of failure – the UN has acknowledged prohibition doesn't work. At the previous UNGASS in 1998, the UN declared it would eradicate all poppy and coca plants (the base for opium and cocaine) within 10 years, but quietly rescinded that pronouncement when the absurdity of it became clear. While the UN has finally begun to incorporate alternative economic development as a tool to reduce drug problems, they have constrained themselves within a narrow interpretation of the international drug control treaties, which still view prohibition through law enforcement as the norm. It is time for Canada to expand that interpretation.
A recent report from the London School of Economics doesn't see the need to dismantle the treaties right away: "The conventions have traditionally been viewed as a useful coalescing mechanism for international co-operation and therefore deserving public declamations of respect and adherence." That is to say, publicly the treaties are upheld for the overall sake of international co-operation, but there is room to move within their boundaries. We've seen this principle applied already with the widespread decriminalization of cannabis in countries where the drug remains illegal but not subject to criminal penalties.
Recently Canada's assistant deputy minister of health Hilary Geller said, "[Canada] will seek to align its objectives for a new marijuana regime with the objectives of the international drug-control framework and the spirit of the conventions." This may be a sign that the federal government intends to pursue legalization without expectations of major reform to the UN drug-control treaties or a plan for Canada to withdraw from them.
By taking a stance that Canada is protecting Canadians from the harms associated with black-market economies, we avoid having to take the difficult and potentially damaging step of breaking our treaty obligations.
The war on drugs is dead, and Canada can fill the void it left with a well-regulated system to purchase and use cannabis with the least amount of harm for consumers. We can act responsibly and justly; something the drug war rarely ever did.