UN Report Slams Legalization, Calls It a “Significant” Health Challenge for Youth

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The UN’s International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), which oversees compliance with international drug conventions, released its annual report yesterday, days ahead of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs’ meeting in Vienna where member states will weigh possible changes to international drug policy. The report, which makes recommendations to national governments, opens with a focus on the medical and non-medical use of cannabis.

Cannabis, the report underscores, is included under Schedules I and IV of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 “because it produces dependence and has adverse public health consequences.” In doing so, the report disregards a recent recommendation made by the WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD), which suggests the removal of cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV and effectively acknowledges its medical utility.

The INCB’s report is also critical of “Poorly regulated medical cannabis programmes in North America.” According to the report, patients in Canada and parts of the United States “have been allowed to purchase cannabis from commercial outlets for use for a variety of medical conditions, under minimal medical supervision.” Additionally, “The cannabis sold in dispensaries [in the United States] may be illicitly produced and sold. [And] There may be substantial diversion of cannabis products intended for medical use to non-medical use.”

In its position paper, the INCB is also critical of Canada and Uruguay’s decision to put an end to cannabis prohibition, along with some of the United States. “The actions of those countries and state jurisdictions undermine the treaties,” the INCB said. “They may also encourage other States parties to follow their example and use it as a justification for doing so.”

The report also goes on to say that “One argument used by advocates of legalizing cannabis for non-medical use is that it will restrict minors’ access to cannabis.” However according to the INCB, “Authorities [in the state of Washington] have reported substantial numbers of licensed cannabis businesses selling cannabis to minors, an offence punishable only by small fines.” (Here, the report does not provide a citation.)

Overall, the report finds that “There is often little or no scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of many of the purported medical uses of cannabis and there is very little medical supervision of these ‘medical’ uses of cannabis.”

The INCB’s report also makes a strong push against personal cultivation, something advocates throughout the world, particularly in Latin America, have called for as a means to make cannabis medicines more accessible to patients. But according to the INCB, “personal cultivation of cannabis for medical purposes is inconsistent with the 1961 Convention” because “it heightens the risk of diversion” and does not allow governments to supervise its production, manufacture, export, import, and distribution. With regard to the authorization of personal cultivation in Canadian households, the INCB expressed concern that this will lead to “reduced perceptions of harm” among youth and “notes that the rates of cannabis abuse among young people in Canada are already among the highest in the world.”  

Ultimately, the INCB recommended that “Pharmaceutical-quality cannabinoids should be approved for clearly defined medical uses by the country’s pharmaceutical regulatory system.”

Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a leading anti-cannabis legalization reform group, lauded the INCB’s report. “Legislators considering legalizing marijuana in their state would be well served to heed the findings,” said president Kevin Sabet. “The rush to legalize high potency marijuana and the claims of its miracle cures are running far ahead of scientific evidence and sending the message to our nation’s young people that use of the drug is normal and safe. Effective drug policy should aim to reduce harmful drug use, not encourage and commercialize it.”

Ann Fordham, executive director of the International Drug Policy Consortium, a coalition of 177 NGOs working on drug policy issues, responded critically.

In calling for the approval of pharmaceutical-quality cannabinoids while continuing “to essentially demonise other medical cannabis products and downplay their therapeutic and medical usefulness,” she argued, the INCB is privileging “pharmaceutical control of the medical cannabis industry and side lines traditional medicinal practices, herbal products from small farmers as well as patients who would prefer to grow their own plants.”

“With this latest position on cannabis,” Fordham concluded, “the INCB remains part of an increasingly outdated and ineffective drug control system that can no longer deal with the rapidly changing global drug market. The trend towards cannabis reforms for both medical and recreational use is only set to accelerate. To remain relevant, INCB would do well to support governments to negotiate this new terrain rather than seeking to stall and undermine developments in cannabis legislation.”

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