UN Drug Official ‘Voices Concern’ To Feds Over State Marijuana Laws

As federal officials mull how to react to the passage of marijuana laws in Washington and Colorado, the head of a United Nations drug agency is urging the federal government to do whatever necessary to ensure the United States’ continued compliance with international drug treaties.

International Narcotics Control Board President Raymond Yans said laws authorizing the non-medical use of cannabis violate international drug control treaties and send ‘‘a wrong message to the rest of the nation and … a wrong message abroad.’’ Under the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, marijuana is listed as a “Schedule I” drug, meaning states are tasked with implementing a system for limiting usage of the drug to medical and scientific purposes.

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the treaty, and some have questioned whether the treaty’s goal of protecting the “health and welfare of mankind” has been undermined by drug criminalization. As the Global Initiative for Drug Policy Reform explains:

The 1961 Convention was drafted and negotiated in a very different political and social environment than today. Notably, drug use was significantly less widespread and illegal drug markets were more confined geographically and less diverse. International organised crime, which profits greatly from drug trafficking, was yet to become the global phenomenon that we have seen since. HIV and its transmission through the use of syringes in drug use, as well as the prevalent use of cocaine, synthetic drugs and other stimulants were not significant concerns in 1961. Indeed, it was only after the 1961 Convention’s legislation was fully implemented, did large-scale illegal production of controlled substances begin. […]


Although the objectives of the 1961 Convention made it clear that its aims were the improvement of the health and welfare of mankind, the measures of success which have been used in the ‘war on drugs’ approach have been the number of arrests, size of the seizures or severity of prison sentences. … “these indicators may tell us how tough we are being, but they don’t tell us how successful we are in improving the health and welfare of mankind.”

Like many international treaties, the Single Convention does not have any strong mechanism for enforcement, and other signatory countries have endured similar warnings without consequence. Canada, for example, was warned by the INCB in 2008 after it launched its “safe injection sites,” but it has since continued operating the sites and even looked to expand the program.