How Marijuana Demonstrates The Weakness Of The UN

How Marijuana Demonstrates The Weakness Of The UN

It is possible to simultaneously reject John Bolton’s view of the world and to be rightly dismissive of the United Nations — though not for a reason to which America’s walrus-faced reactionary would be sympathetic.


A reflexive though ultimately cynical nod towards the UN’s international order is how the United States helped scotch Canada’s efforts to decriminalize marijuana a lifetime ago, during President George W. Bush’s first term.

Today, Canada’s flagrant dismissal of such scruples — and the resulting international trade in cannabis, in which it is the unquestioned leader — is yet another example of the low regard with which much of the world regards its supposed peacekeeper.

For this, you can lay most of the blame at the foot of the United States, which is responsible for pushing its hard line on drugs to the rest of the world at a time when it was the dominant power — and which has never had much use for the UN except for as a rubber stamp, and one that it doesn’t always bother to get.

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Borne out of the calamity of World War II — which itself was the result of previous internationalist failures — the UN’s main function has been to provide a semblance of international decorum. The UN dispenses a sort of global “conventional wisdom” (though one only rarely considered beyond a small coterie of think-tank eggheads and Foreign Policy subscribers) and provides a venue in which to air grievances. Not a court — that body, to which neither the US nor China are parties, is in The Hague — but a sort of agora of the world, where a wrongdoer can be identified and publicly denounced, provided they are are unpopular or isolated enough, or insufficiently wealthy.

In other words: an international coffee klatch, enfeebled and farcical, replete with corruption.

The Case For Revisiting Dusty Treaties

This is a good starting point from which to consider the UN’s blanket prohibition on certain narcotic drugs — including cannabis, the world’s most popular illegal drug where it is illegal, and a real-life game of Monopoly where it is not.

Three international treaties prohibit or restrict access to most drugsthe 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs; the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and 1988’s Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.

Like in the US’s Controlled Substances Act, exact restrictions on drugs depend on their categorization, or “scheduling.” Like the CSA, these international treaties classify cannabis as a “Schedule I” substance, meaning it is the most dangerous and subject to the tightest controls.

According to the terms of the 1961 Single Convention, the world’s citizens agreed to work to end cannabis use worldwide by 1989. You could say that it didn’t quite work out, and that in itself would justify revisiting these dusty treaties. Yet in many countries, the passage of laws outlawing or restricting cannabis was justified in part by adherence to these treaties. And to this day, the Drug Enforcement Administration claims, with a straight face, that it must consider illegal non-psychoactive cannabis oil high in the compound CBD — a product derived entirely from hemp, which is legal to import into the US — because of these treaties.

Meanwhile, Canada has become the global leader in medical cannabis. With the imprimatur from Canada’s federal government and its health ministry, 84 companies grow medical marijuana, several of which have received export licenses. By the end of this month, Canadian companies are expected to have exported some 528 kilograms of dried cannabis flower and 911 liters of marijuana oil. That’s about the annual output of a medium-sized marijuana farm in California, but the mere fact that Canada is shipping weed to Germany, Australia, and the Czech Republic was unthinkable not that long ago.

A Conventional Lack Of Weed Wisdom

If you were logical, you might assume that Canada’s global cannabis trade makes a mockery of the three UN agreements. It does, but it’s not nearly as problematic as Canada’s domestic marijuana policy. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to legalize recreational marijuana, a vow that’s on track to be fulfilled this summer.

Allowing cannabis for medical or research purposes is forgivable under the UN treaties. Allowing citizens to smoke weed for fun isn’t, leading those UN-Foreign Policy egghead types to fume and fulminate that by legalizing and taxing a popular drug that has never killed anyone, is safer than alcohol, and will be used all over the globe until the end of time regardless of what international law may say, Canada was on course for some kind of international reckoning.

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“Canada cannot pick and choose which international laws to follow without encouraging other countries to do the same,” insisted Steven J Hoffmana law professor and columnist at Vox. In a perfect world, Hoffman may have a point. In our world, the world in which the UN exists, member nations freely do as they please, all but daring the UN to do anything about it. The UN rarely ever does, and the world continues to turn.

(In sharp contrast to the early 2000s, when Bush Administration officials made the absurd claim that Canadian marijuana decriminalization would destabilize the two countries’ border, one of the world’s safest and most boring, Trump Administration officials have barely acknowledged Trudeau’s plan. Not that the US is abrogating its self-appointed role as the world’s drug cop.)

In 2009, Bolivia altered its constitution to allow for production of coca leaves, the raw material from which cocaine is manufactured. This violated the conventions, eggheads howled. About the worst the UN can do is subject scofflaws to a browbeating or a cold shoulder at the next meetup. “This can be embarrassing in international diplomatic circles,” observed Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University law professor and frequent commentator on drug policy, “but no nation has ever collapsed due to embarrassment.” And in Bolivia’s case, it didn’t even do that.

Not that it should. Considering the UN, the protectorate of human rights and the environment, has on its Security Council nations with deplorable human rights records and has its headquarters in a country whose leadership includes climate-change deniers, marijuana is the least of its worries. But at the same time, its outmoded, antiquated stance on drugs is yet another example of how easily its dictates can be ignored without serious consequence.