March 5, 2013
Et Tu, U.N?

The U.N. is warning American policy makers that legalizing marijuana violates international law:

The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), which polices the drug treaties, has also warned about the growing public health threat from the “unprecedented surge” in “legal highs” and called for concerted global action to curb the growing trade.

Launching its annual report in London, Raymond Yans, the INCB president, said that the successful ballots in Colorado and Washington to legalise the use of cannabis for recreational purposes and the fact that Massachusetts had recently become the 18th state to allow the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes violate the international drug conventions.

Notwithstanding the frustration of the INCB’s position, this quote really took the cake:

“[legalization efforts] undermine the humanitarian aims of the drug control system and are a threat to public health and wellbeing,” said Yans. He claimed that so-called “medicinal use” initiatives were little more than “a back-door to legalisation for recreational use”.

The idea that drug prohibition efforts are a “humanitarian effort” is perhaps subtly contradicted by the 95,000+ dead in Mexico since Felipe Calderon mobilized the Mexican military against the Cartels with U.S. financial backing and support.  But no matter.

The history of the INCB, for those unfamiliar:

The Board had predecessors since the time of under the League of Nations. It all started in 1909 in Shanghai with the International Opium Commission, the first international drug control conference. The International Opium Convention of 1925 established the Permanent Central Board (first known as the Permanent Central Opium Board and then as the Permanent Central Narcotics Board).  That Board started its work in 1929. After the dissolution of the League, the 1946 Protocol Amending the Agreements, Conventions and Protocols on Narcotic Drugs concluded at The Hague on 23 January 1912, at Geneva on 11 February 1925 and 19 February 1925, and 13 July 1931, at Bangkok on 27 November 1931 and at Geneva on 26 June 1936, created a Supervisory Body to administer the estimate system. The functions of both bodies were merged into the Board by the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The composition of the Board under the Single Convention was strongly influenced by the 1946 treaty.

As Wikipedia notes, this is not the first time the INCB has interfered with attempts to reform drug laws.  After Britain attempted to change the schedule for marijuana back in 2002, the INCB issued a report that was critical of the effort.  Parliamentary Undersecretary of State Bob Ainsworth responded:

The comments made in your report, your selective and inaccurate use of statistics, and failure to refer to the scientific basis on which the UK Government’s decision was based all add up to an ill-informed and potentially damaging message. This was compounded by the way in which the Board presented the cannabis reclassification decision to the media at the launch of its annual report on 26 February. For example, the Board representative is quoted as having said that we might end up in the next 10 or 20 years with our psychiatric hospitals filled with people who have problems with cannabis, and that a recent study by the British Lung Foundation found smoking three cannabis joints caused the same damage to the linings of the airways as 20 cigarettes. These are totally misleading statements.

And in April 2003, former U.N. United Nations Drug Control Programme Chief of Demand Reduction Cindy Fazey criticized the INCB:

Unfortunately these individuals also see their role not only as the guardians of the conventions, but also the interpreters of them as well. In their annual report they have criticised many governments, such as Canada for permitting the medicinal use of cannabis, Australia for providing injecting rooms and the United Kingdom for proposing to downgrade the classification of cannabis, which would entail less serious penalties than at present. These criticisms go far beyond their remit, and indeed it is hubris to criticise the Canadian Supreme Court.

The folks at StopTheDrugWar penned a summary of the INCB”s hijinx back in 2003.  The Transnational Institute has criticized the INCB in the past for attacking Latin American countries who reform their own drug laws.  The Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy also criticized the INCB in 2011, noting that:

The UN drug control system is built on the idea that all governments should work together to tackle drug markets and related problems … However, the idea of shared responsibility has too often become a straitjacket that inhibits policy development and experimentation. The UN (through the International Narcotics Control Board), and in particular the US notably through its ‘certification’ process), have worked strenuously over the last 50 years to ensure that all countries adopt the same rigid approach to drug policy – the same laws, and the same tough approach to their enforcement.  As national governments have become more aware of the complexities of the problems, and options for policy responses in their own territories, many have opted to use the flexibilities within the Conventions to try new strategies and programs, such as decriminalization initiatives or harm reduction programs. When [reform efforts] involve a more tolerant approach to drug use, governments have faced international diplomatic pressure to ‘protect the integrity of the Conventions’, even when the policy is legal, successful and supported in the country.

In other words, the INCB is fighting a losing battle.  The strength of the U.N. lies in the collective faith which member countries place in its institutions.  Given that the weight of history currently appears to be on the side of reformers and legalization advocates, it seems clear that if the INCB wishes to maintain its relevancy, it needs to start “protecting the integrity of the Conventions” in a way that member countries in good standing tend to agree upon.  If the INCB refuses to do so, it will become the living manifestation of everything that critics of the U.N. complain about—i.e. a pointless and ineffective bureaucratic body whose only real power requires them to transgress on the sovereign authority of democratic institutions in member states.

5:08pm  |   URL:
Filed under: politics war on drugs UN INCB 
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