European Cannabis Policies Under Attack

TNI Briefing
April 2002

cannabis_leafA strong attack against the European practice of 'leniency' regarding cannabis use and possession took place at the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) session (11-15 March, 2002) in Vienna. There was an orchestrated attempt to pass a CND resolution to put a dam against the 'leniency'.

The attempt was based on the latest annual report of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), which contained strong language about the tolerance trend. On the first day of the CND session the president of the INCB, Hamid Ghodse, stated in his address to the Commission: "In the light of the changes that are occurring in relation to cannabis control in some countries, it would seem to be an appropriate time for the Commission to consider this issue in some detail to ensure the consistent application of the provisions of the 1961 Convention across the globe."

In general statements, and under agenda item 'implementation of the international drug control treaties' several of the hard liners in international drug control (Sweden, Arab countries, the United States) took up this invitation and expressed their grave concern. Countries like Venezuela and Morocco pointed at an emerging contradiction between the trend towards depenalisation of cannabis consumption and a continuing pressure on Southern countries to eradicate cannabis with repressive means.

The countries 'under attack' like Switzerland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Belgium and Italy kept silent, opting to avoid a debate rather than add fuel to the polarisation. The language of a first resolution sponsored by Sudan on 'Control of Cannabis' was diplomatically flattened out to just confirm the adherence to the existing conventions and to support the INCB recommendation to "discuss the new cannabis policies in various countries and to agree on ways to address that development within the framework of international law."

The opponents of leniency, however, were not satisfied. According to several delegates the initiative for a second resolution was taken by the INCB, who sought help from Egypt to introduce it (along with Jordan, Lebanon, Libya and Sudan). The draft was harsh:

E/CN.7/2002/L.22 Reducing Illicit drug demand
The Commission on narcotic Drugs,
Concerned about the fact that, in recent reports of the INCB there have been indications of leniency towards illicit drug use in some countries,
Realizing that the inclination to permit the use of certain narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances for non-medical purposes is contrary to the provisions of the international drug control treaties;
  1. Affirms the necessity of ensuring that legal restrictions on the illicit use of narcotic substances and psychotropic substances;
  2. Calls for the implementation of the provisions of the international drug control treaties that oblige States parties to criminalize the use of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances for non-medical purposes, in order to prevent the spread of the drug abuse epidemic and the problems associated with it.

The chair of the Committee of the Whole smiled that this was the shortest resolution he had ever seen and joked that he expected a short discussion and quick approval.

Canada, Portugal and Spain took the floor all arguing that the resolution was ill-conceived, came late in the process, had linguistical flaws and used other language then the INCB report it referred to. They recommended the sponsors to 'try again next year with a better prepared text' and to disregard the current draft during this CND session. The tactic failed. The sponsors, supported by Sweden, the US and some others like Nigeria, demanded the resolution to be discussed, given that it addressed a serious shared concern and one of the priority issues of the INCB report.

By then, it was already Thursday evening, and the Committee of the Whole had to present all revised drafts that same evening to the chairwoman of the plenary to prepare for their approval on the next day, the last day of the CND session. An informal working group was established to revise the text and come to an agreement. Late that evening, upon closing the Committee of the Whole, it became clear the informal group had not been able to reach any agreement. Special permission was asked from the plenary to continue informal consultations on Friday morning and to put this resolution later on the agenda. All Friday morning the informal group continued its deliberations, with representatives from the sponsors, the US, Sweden, and most of the 'tolerant' countries whose policies potentially could come under pressure by this resolution.

After difficult negotiations, they came up with the following compromise language, now also co-sponsored by Ghana and Nigeria (who are eager to receive financial assistance for cannabis eradication and Alternative Development efforts), and by Denmark and Sweden:

E/CN.7/2002/L.22/Rev.2 Reducing demand for illicit drugs (CND Resolution 45/15)
The Commission on Narcotic Drugs,
Concerned that lenient policies towards the use of illicit drugs not in accordance with the international drug control treaties may hamper the efforts of the international community to address the world drug problem,
Recognizing the need to maintain a balanced and integrated approach to demand for and supply of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances,
  1. Reaffirms the necessity to take appropriate measures to reduce the demand for illicit drugs;
  2. Calls for the implementation of all the previsions of the international drug control treaties, in particular those provisions which oblige States parties to limit the use of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances exclusively to medical and scientific purposes.

In the plenary, a final controversy appeared over the word "may" in the first paragraph. Indonesia and India requested it to be removed, while the Netherlands stated that "this compromise was reached after lengthy and difficult consultations and for the Netherlands this word 'may' is of crucial importance". They received support from Spain, Portugal, Canada and Finland who said it would be willing to co-sponsor the resolution if the word 'may' remained in the text. Subsequently the 'may'-objectors gave in, while stating that they "wanted it to go on the record that the Group of 77 and China want strict adherence to the conventions and that any diversion will seriously hamper drug control efforts."

There it ended and the resolution was approved, leaving all sides dissatisfied. Next year, a new attempt to construct a CND resolution dam to slow down the trends towards cannabis decriminalisation, may well be undertaken. This one was focused on "use", where the conventions allow most flexibility, which made it relatively easy for the attacked countries to defend their leniency. If a similar resolution appears on the issues of possession and supply (coffee shops, cultivation) it will be much more difficult to negotiate a compromise. The best way forward seems to be to take up the invitation of the WHO made during the session, stating they "would be very pleased to consider scientific data on cannabis, as provided in the 1961 convention, if they were delivered by member states." He cautioned, however, that medical studies alone may not give the answer.

Very little attention was given to this bureaucratical battle at the Vienna drug control headquarters. These events tend to pass by unnoticed, although the have a real impact on the course of international drug control policies.

"A public confrontation between hawks and doves on global drugs policies may be positive," Joep Oomen, secretary of the European NGO Council on Drugs and Development, commented in an analysis of the events at the CND meeting. "Finally, the controversy on the UN Conventions on Drugs will reach the forum where decisions can be taken to modify them. And as we have seen in Europe, once the dialogue starts, sooner or later some progress will be made. However, it is a risky endeavour as well. What occurred in Vienna in March was that the US operated behind the scenes, leaving the frontal attack on Europe's policy to a group of developing countries." (in: "Europe vs USA, first round", in ENCOD's bimonthly newsletter Drugs and Development, April 2002).

"Instead of taking a defensive attitude that tries to avoid international condemnation of policies it has applied with remarkable success, Europe should focus on how to put the essential question on the table: do we want to continue enforcing a global framework for drugs policies that leaves no room for manoeuvre to apply national or local policies which are not based on prohibition?" Oomen continued. He thinksthat in order to prevent further attacks on the liberalisation of cannabis "international co-operation between drugs policy reformers is urgently necessary. Apart from proving that prohibition has failed to deliver its stated objectives, we need to mobilise political pressure on European government officials to take a more consistent and therefore more credible attitude in the international drugs policy debate."

According to Martin Jelsma, coordinator of the Drugs & Democracy programme of the Transnational Institute, "there is no question that sooner or later the tolerance trend will run into the limitations of the UN conventions. It already touches the very edges of the letter and spirit of some articles." (see: Revising and Integrating Drug Policies at National and International Level: How Can Reform Be Achieved?, keynote speech presented at the Wilton Park Conference on Drug Policies and their Impact, March 27, 2002)

Analyzing the possibilities for change within the UN framework, Jelsma thinks: "If the countries committed to the search for pragmatic solutions want to advance any further, it becomes urgent to begin to question openly and seriously the straitjacket of the conventions. The obvious obstacle to considering any changes in that direction is the consensus-driven functioning of the CND. With the current polarisation, it is virtually unthinkable that any agreement could be reached even on the slightest tinkering with the straitjacket model or on the possibility of allowing more space for member states to re-define their own drug policies."

There may still be possibilities, however, to break the impasse at the UN level and conquer space for more policy diversity while avoiding the necessity to reach a new consensus, Jelsma thinks. "On the cannabis issue, for example, it may be worth taking up the invitation made by the World Health Organisation (WHO) during the CND session. (...) It only takes a simple CND majority to ratify a WHO recommendation to re-schedule substances under the 1961 convention and there is no formal rule that prohibits voting procedures. The CND practice of proceeding on the basis of consensus was adopted only when the US lost its voting power for not having paid their UN dues. CND resolutions, in principle, do not necessarily require consensus and can be helpful to clarify the interpretation of provisions of the conventions and to stretch the latitude countries have to develop a differentiated national drug policy."

On the other hand, most cannabis users don't seem to care a lot about drug policies. In a recent study, The Irrelevance of Drug Policy, coordinated by the Center for Drug Research at the University of Amsterdam, on cannabis use in Amsterdam, San Francisco and Bremen, the researchers concluded: "Not surprisingly, most cannabis users would like to see cannabis laws relaxed. However, the majority does not feel it really matters. There is easy accessibility to cannabis, and even in San Francisco and Bremen, most users say it would take them less than a day to obtain a gram of cannabis."

Apparently, there is little difference in countries where there is tighter control on cannabis use in comparison with the liberal regime in The Netherlands with its decriminalized sale of cannabis in so-called coffee shops. But how long is this going to last?