During the March meetings of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, discussion of drug policy reform occurred mainly in side events organized by NGO’s. The International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) organized a series of lunch-time discussions on themes like cannabis policy reform, the Latin American agenda for drug policy reform, and models of decriminalization. In each of these sessions the current state of cannabis control was a key issue given that several countries and other jurisdictions have or are considering lessening controls on this drug.
As speakers at the session on cannabis policy reform pointed out, the history of the inclusion of cannabis in the international drug control treaties had little to do with facts or evidence. In Canada for example, cannabis was prohibited in 1923 with little public debate and even less actual use of this substance. Its prohibition may have been related to a number of factors including emerging international drug control agreements as well as a series of racist articles in Canada’s national magazine, Maclean’s, written by Emily Murphy from 1920-22 and published in her book, The Black Candle, in 1922.  Murphy depicted cannabis use as the domain of Black men and insisted that this drug undermined the morality of otherwise good white women. In fact, at that time very few people used cannabis in Canada and most members of Canada’s Parliament did not even know what it was. 
But the misanthropic roots of Canada’s efforts to control cannabis also stemmed from geopolitical politics of the late 19th and early 20th century. As the Canadian Senate argued in 2002:
“The international regime for the control of psychoactive substances, beyond any moral or even racist roots may have initially had, in first and foremost a system that reflects the geopolitics of North-South relations in the 20th century. Indeed, the strictest controls were placed on organic substances – the coca bush, the poppy and cannabis plant – which are often part of the ancestral traditions of the countries where these plants originate, whereas the North’s cultural products, tobacco and alcohol, were ignored and the synthetic substances produced by the North’s pharmaceutical industry were subject to regulation rather than prohibition.” 
By 1961, a patchwork of international treaties existed to control drugs (I.e. cocaine, heroin). In 1961, the CND consolidated these treaties into the aptly named Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Cannabis was included in both Schedule IV and Schedule I of the Convention marking this plant one of the most dangerous substances.  This new Convention obliged signatories to create a system of penalties for possession, trafficking and cultivation of this plant. But by 1961, cannabis had been prohibited in Canada for almost 40 years. It remains today a prohibited substance. In fact, the most recent amendments to Canada’s drug law, the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, provide mandatory minimum prison sentences for cultivating as little as six plants. 
But as the IDPC session at the CND illustrated, the international consensus on the prohibition of cannabis is quickly breaking down. Legislators in Uruguay are seriously considered the implementation of a legally regulated and state controlled regime for cannabis; the US states of Washington and Colorado have voted to create regulated markets for cannabis for adults and proposed legislation to do the same has been introduced in eight other state legislatures. These events follow on a long history of decriminalization of cannabis including the Dutch coffee shop model, the decriminalization of cannabis in several Australian states, and the initiation of discussions about cannabis decriminalization in several Latin American countries. In fact, the pace of recent developments that lend support to new models for regulating cannabis has been so rapid that it’s hard to keep up.
BC sits on the border of the one the U.S. states currently creating a regulated market for this drug. It begs the obvious question…what is Canada going to do in the face of these changes? Drug law in this country is a federal matter and thus changes must occur at that level. That hasn’t stopped Sensible BC from initiating a campaign to get British Columbians to vote for a ballot initiative that would see changes to BC’s Policing Act. These changes would redirect policing resources in BC away from enforcing laws against simple possession of cannabis by adults – a form of defacto decriminalization.
The public health footprint of cannabis is small compared to other substances like alcohol. And there are likely significant tax revenues to be gained from a regulated model. One of the other advantages that seldom gets a mention is the fact that a regulated model can borrow some of the techniques used to regulate tobacco and alcohol including age controls, plain packaging, limits on who can sell, when they can sell, licensing for cultivation, specifications for potency and purity, among others. Right now, cannabis supply is controlled by an underground market with none of the provisions I noted above. What make more sense? Continue along the same failed road, or create a regulated market which could potentially balance the need for consumer choice with public health goals?
I think the choice is clear.
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- Murphy, Emily. 1922. The Black Candle. Toronto: Thomas Allen. Giffen, P.J., Shirley Endicott and Sylvia Lambert. 1991. Panic and Indifference: the Politics of Canada’s Drug Laws: a Study in the Sociology of Law. Ottawa: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, p. 173, 327; Carstairs, Catherine. 2006. Jailed for Possession: Illegal Drug Use, Regulation and Power in Canada, 1920-1961. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p. 19.
- Giffen et al., 1991.
- Canada, Parliament. Senate. Report of the Special Committee on Illegal Drugs Cannabis. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p. 162.
- Bewedley-Taylor, D. 2012. International Drug Control: Consensus Fractured. New York: Cambridge.
- Canada, Department of Justice. 2011. Backgrounder: Safe Streets and Communities Act. Available at: http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/news-nouv/nr-cp/2011/doc_32637.html.