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The United Nations is once again chastising Canada for allowing cannabis to be used recreationally, even as the world body inches toward its own version of legalization.

On Tuesday, a senior UN bureaucrat said recreational cannabis legalization efforts underway around the world pose a “significant challenge” to public health. The criticism came barely one week after the UN body responsible for drug policy delayed plans to vote on expert recommendations to loosen global restrictions on cannabis and cannabis-derived products.

As legal cannabis growers increasingly look to capitalize on expanding international markets, the delay represents the latest challenge facing companies whose ambitions continue to move faster than the bureaucratic wheels of the UN.

Tuesday’s comments from UN International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) president Viroj Sumyai, meanwhile, are simply the latest in a litany of disapproving statements from the world body stretching back more than a year.

In its 2017 annual report published in March 2018, the INCB said it “notes with concern that in Canada” Bill C-45 was tabled in the House of Commons in April of 2017. “As the Board has stated repeatedly,” the document said, if the Cannabis Act became Canadian law - as it subsequently did - it would be “incompatible with the obligations assumed by Canada” under the 1961 International Drug Control Convention.

The gloves really came off just days before Canada’s legal recreational cannabis regime took effect. In an Oct. 15, 2018, statement, INCB president Viroj Sumyai said not only was Canada violating the 1961 treaty, but he repeatedly referred to cannabis consumption in general as “not a healthy lifestyle choice.”

Less than a month later, from Nov. 12 to 16, the UN-backed World Health Organization’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence met in Geneva to conduct “critical reviews… to determine the most relevant level of international control for cannabis and cannabis-related substances and whether the [WHO] should recommend changes in their level of control.”

In an open letter to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres dated Jan. 24, 2019, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recommended broad rescheduling that would effectively remove cannabis products from the strictest level of international control to a level more akin to common painkiller ingredients such as codeine.

The 1961 Convention, as well as the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, can only be altered by a majority of the 53 UN member states comprising the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND). The 1961 treaty can be altered by a simple majority of 27 member states, though a two-thirds majority of at least 35 CND members is required before changes to the 1971 treaty can be approved.

Previously expected to come to a vote when the full CND meets in Vienna from March 14 to 22, but in an intersessional meeting on February 25th, Mexican Ambassador and current CND chair Alicia Buenrostro Massieu recommended the vote be postponed. Despite requests from other members such as Uruguay to set a new date for the vote on cannabis rescheduling, no date has been established and in the meantime, the criticism continues.

“Legalization of cannabis for recreational purposes… represents not only a challenge to the universal implementation of [the 1961 and 1971 treaties], but also a significant challenge to health and well-being, particularly among young people,” the INCB’s Mr. Sumyai said in a March 5th interview with the U.N.’s internal news service following the publication of the board’s latest annual report.

While many have heralded the WHO recommendations made earlier this year as a positive step for the global cannabis legalization movement, there is no guarantee of any other steps getting taken.

“The reality of the situation is [the Commission on Narcotic Drugs] does not have to vote, ever,” U.N.-based freelance journalist Sara Brittany Somerset wrote in a recent analysis for Forbes. “The participating member states can, in fact, waffle and procrastinate indefinitely about cannabis.”


March 1, 2018
UN body “notes with concern” that Canada is about to legalize recreational cannabis
June 4-7 2018
WHO expert committee decides to recommend all restrictions on pure cannabidiol-based (CBD) products be lifted
July 23rd 2018
Head of WHO formally recommends UN not schedule CBD at all
Oct 15, 2018
Senior UN bureaucrat says Canada has “contravened” its international obligations, calls cannabis consumption “not a healthy lifestyle choice
Nov 12-16, 2018
WHO expert committee decides to recommend less restrictions on cannabis
Jan 24, 2019
Head of WHO formally recommends UN adopt expert recommendations to reschedule cannabis to a less restrictive level
Feb 25, 2019
UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs agrees to postpone voting on WHO recommendations, with no new date scheduled
March 5, 2019
Senior UN bureaucrat slams recreational cannabis legalization as a “significant challenge” to public health