By Sam Horowitz, Staff Member

On October 17, 2018, the Cannabis Act came into effect in Canada and recreational marijuana became legal.[1] Canada became the second country in the world—after Uruguay—and the only country in the G20 to legalize the drug.[2] Half a century and hundreds of billions of dollars into the war on drugs,[3] there is a growing international trend toward decriminalization and legalization.[4] Currently, international drug treaties “prohibit the non-medical use of amphetamines, cannabis, cocaine, and heroin.”[5]

Modern international drug policies began in the 1960s with the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961.[6] The Single Convention was followed by two other drug treaties that make up the main body of international drug law[7]—the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971[8] and the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988.[9] The 1988 Convention “formalized . . . that member states were required to criminalize the possession, use, manufacture and sale of prohibited drugs . . . .”[10]

As recently as 2016, the General Assembly adopted a resolution affirming its commitment to the three drug treaties and its “determination . . . to prevent and counter the[] illicit cultivation, production, manufacturing and trafficking [of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances] . . . .”[11] Conversely, a year later the WHO and UN called for the review and repeal of criminal laws for “drug use or possession of drugs for personal use.”[12]

The conflict between the law and state practice could be solved by reforming these treaties. However, reform “require[s] changes to the international treaties and these changes require the consent of all signatory states . . . .”[13] To get around this, Bolivia withdrew from the treaties and re-acceded with a reservation in place.[14] Other nations—including Canada and the United States—have just ignored the treaties.[15]

If these treaties are not reviewed and reformed and powerful nations continue to breach them, there is a significant risk that this area of international law—and the substantial resources spent on it—will lose all value.[16]

[1] Government of Canada, Cannabis in Canada, (last visited Oct. 24, 2018); see Cannabis Act, S.C. 2018, c 16 (Can.).

[2] Selena Ross, All Eyes on Canada as First G7 Nation Prepares to Make Marijuana Legal, The Guardian (June 6, 2018, 2:00 AM),

[3] See Steve Rolles et al., The Alternative World Drug Report: Counting the Costs of the War on Drugs 8 (2012).

[4] Louis Charbonneau, U.N. Reviews War on Drugs amid Global Push for Liberalization, Reuters, Apr. 19, 2016, 10:46 AM),; see also Drake Baer, 5 Countries Experimenting with Liberal Drug Laws, Bus. Insider (Mar. 30, 2016, 4:00 PM), (examining drug liberalization policies in six major countries including the United States and Switzerland).

[5] Wayne Hall, The Future of the International Drug Control System and National Drug Prohibitions, 113 Addiction 1210, 1210 (2017) (emphasis added).

[6] See id. at 1211, Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, Mar. 30 1961, 18 U.S.T. 1407, 520 U.N.T.S. 151.

[7] See id.

[8] Convention on Psychotropic Substances, Feb. 21, 1971, 32 U.S.T. 543, 1019 U.N.T.S. 175

[9] Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, Dec. 20, 1988, 1582 U.N.T.S. 95.

[10] Hall, supra note 5.

[11] G.A. Res. S-30/1, at 1 (Apr. 19, 2016).

[12] Joint Statement, Joint United Nations Statement on Ending Discrimination in Health Care Settings (June 27, 2017),

[13] Hall, supra note 5, at 1212.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] See id. at 1212, 1219