Canada’s cannabis conundrum

Can Canada call for a rules-based order while violating international conventions? Madelaine Drohan reports on tensions brewing over the country's drug laws.

By: /
28 June, 2019
Cannabis plants fill a room in an aquaponics grow operation by licensed marijuana producer Green Relief in Flamborough, Ontario. REUTERS/Carlos Osorio
Madelaine Drohan
By: Madelaine Drohan

Canada correspondent, The Economist

There are many reasons why Canada-Russia relations are strained these days, but one that does not get much publicity is the Liberal government’s decision to legalize recreational cannabis. This has incensed Russia, which has been leading the charge against Canada at meetings in Vienna of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, a United Nations body with 53 member countries which oversees the international drug conventions.

Russia’s language at times has been distinctly undiplomatic, openly accusing Canada of cynicism and hypocrisy. At the recent commission meeting on June 24, the Russian representative did not mention Canada by name. But there was little doubt which country he was thinking of when he noted that some member states had legalized cannabis, which he called the most abused drug in the world, in violation of their commitments to international drug conventions.

He has a point. The World Drug Report released June 26 noted that cannabis was by far and away the most widely used of the drugs controlled under international drug conventions. Of the estimated 271 million people worldwide who had used a controlled drug in 2017, 188 million had used cannabis even though it is banned (except for medical purposes).

Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign minister, admitted to a Senate committee in May 2018 that legalizing recreational cannabis would contravene Canada’s obligations under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961; the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, 1971; and the United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, 1988. She defended the government’s approach, saying it was consistent with the over-arching aim of the conventions to protect the health and welfare of society, an argument that countries like Russia dismiss.

The Liberal government has put itself into an awkward position from which there is no easy way out. As Russia frequently points out, Canada can hardly portray itself as a strong supporter of the international rules-based order when it is blatantly breaking some of the rules it agreed to uphold. But none of the possible avenues open to Canada is problem-free. And the entire debate is inflamed by a widening rift between countries who think the growing global drug problem can be dealt with by ramping up the war on drugs and those who think a new approach is needed.

Those divisions were on display at the June 24 meeting, the first the commission has held to discuss the January 2019 recommendation by the World Health Organization that cannabis be removed from the Schedule IV category of drugs in the 1961 convention. Drugs in that category are considered particularly harmful with few therapeutic uses. Removing cannabis from Schedule IV but leaving it in Schedule I, a category for drugs that have a high potential for abuse and addiction, would allow more research and freer trade in medical cannabis but would not change the illegal status of recreational cannabis.

As Russia frequently points out, Canada can hardly portray itself as a strong supporter of the international rules-based order when it is blatantly breaking some of the rules.

But even that is a step too far for those countries, including Russia, who think more enforcement and tighter restrictions are needed to correct a global drug problem that continues to grow despite several decades of the war on drugs. In their eyes, allowing countries to legalize recreational cannabis opens a “Pandora’s box” that will lead to the end of international drug control. The enforcers include the Philippines, where the war on drugs waged by President Rodrigo Duterte has led to the deaths of more than 12,000 people, and China, where drug traffickers face the death penalty. (Two Canadians in China have been sentenced to death in the last year for drug smuggling.) Russia and Japan pushed for a delay when the commission wanted to debate the schedule change for cannabis in February, even though countries like Canada and Uruguay (the first country to legalize recreational cannabis) were keen to move ahead.

The experts’ report on which the World Health Organization based its recommendation makes for interesting reading. It notes that cannabis and cannabis resin have not been scientifically reviewed since a 1935 study by the health committee of the League of Nations. There is no known fatal overdose, according to these experts. A review of more recent scientific studies suggest cannabis smoking can lead to a number of negative short-term effects, such as physical and mental impairment, lower birth weight in babies, and psychotic events at high doses. Yet these studies also suggest some beneficial effects of cannabis use, such as reducing the proliferation and migration of cancer cells, and oddly enough, improved respiratory function in people who smoke three to five joints a month.

When the commission finally began debating the recommendation in June, Russia, Pakistan and China pointed to the negative findings as reason to further delay a decision on cannabis. Nigeria joined in, noting that its armed forces found cannabis in Boko Haram camps. Mexico wondered how the effects of cannabis compared with legal substances like sugar and caffeine. Canada added that tobacco and alcohol use should also be compared. Neither alcohol nor tobacco are listed in the conventions, an omission that critics point to as proof that the international laws were written by northern countries to discriminate against southern ones where plant-based drugs were popular.

While these arguments were being made specifically about the rescheduling of cannabis, they reflect the broad and deepening divide over drug control. The global consensus on drug policy is “fractured beyond repair,” Martin Jelsma, a Dutch political scientist who specializes in drug policy, told a Canadian Senate committee studying convention compliance. That limits Canada’s options for bringing itself back into line with the international drug conventions because it precludes the idea of renegotiating the conventions to reflect today’s reality. Canada, Uruguay and 11 American states have legalized recreational cannabis. Mexico, Luxembourg, Switzerland and New Zealand are poised to follow. The Netherlands is exploring legal supply in some areas.

Canada could withdraw from the conventions completely, but this is unlikely. Freeland told the Senate committee that the conventions regulate the movement of more than 100 drugs. Withdrawing would be an excessive response and detrimental to Canada’s best interests, she said.

Canada could follow the example of Bolivia, which withdrew from the conventions in 2012 when it wanted to legalize coca leaf production and then re-acceded in 2013, with an explicit reservation for coca. But if too many countries go down this road it could create a global patchwork of drug control instead of a unified system.

It could follow the example of Uruguay, which took no action after legalization and continues to operate under the drug conventions. But what works for a small country like Uruguay may not work for a G7 member country like Canada. Russia is pushing for Canada to be sanctioned by the commission, as has been done with Afghanistan.

A final, untested option is for Canada and a group of like-minded countries to negotiate what is known as an inter se agreement under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. The countries would agree to recognize that recreational cannabis was legal within their borders and trade it among themselves. But they would need to ensure that their legal cannabis did not leak across borders into states where the drug was still prohibited. “It’s not a good option because there’s not a lot of precedence,” says Roojin Habibi, a research fellow at the Global Strategy Lab in Toronto. That said, there are really no good solutions, says Habibi.

In its final report the Senate committee recommended the government “mitigates Canada’s violation of these three drug treaties” but did not say exactly how. Freeland told the May 2018 Senate committee that the government was reviewing its options. Her office confirmed in June this year that is still the case. Yet Canada will have to resolve its cannabis conundrum sooner rather than later or else Russia and its supporters will seek to impose their own solution.

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