The Demise of the International War on Drugs

The Demise of the International War on Drugs

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