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What happens when cannabis legalization meets international drug treaties?

The flags of member nations fly outside the General Assembly building at the United Nations headquarters in New York. Canada is signatory to multiple international treaties on illegal drugs, and it's not clear how cannabis legalization will affect those agreements. (Adam Rountree / The Canadian Press files)

The International Narcotics Control Board has a reminder for the government of Canada: As far as it's concerned, legalizing cannabis for recreational purposes would violate an international treaty.

The INCB, which describes itself as "an independent, quasi-judicial expert body established by the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961," made that comment in its most recent report, which came out March 1.

"As the Board has stated repeatedly, if passed into law, provisions of Bill C-45, which permit non-medical and non-scientific use of cannabis would be incompatible with the obligations assumed by Canada under the 1961 Convention as amended," said the report.

Canada is also signatory to the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances and the 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.

In its report to the federal government, Canada's task force on cannabis legalization suggested Canada could still legalize cannabis without violating the spirit of those international agreements:

"While it is not part of the Task Force's mandate to make recommendations to the Government on how to address its international commitments, it is our view that Canada's proposal to legalize cannabis shares the objectives agreed to by member states in multilateral declarations, namely: to protect vulnerable citizens, particularly youth; to implement evidence-based policy; and to put public health, safety and welfare at the heart of a balanced approach to treaty implementation."

In a 2016 commentary for the Canadian Medical Association Journal, authors Steven Hoffman and Roojin Habibi argued Canada "may be justified in withdrawing from the UN drug-control conventions, both to protect the rule of international law and to avoid any public health harms that the government believes these conventions cause."

"Formally withdrawing from outdated treaties like these is a country's sovereign right," concluded Hoffman and Habibi.

"It may also be a moral duty if the government believes the conventions' required policies are harmful. What should be avoided at all costs is the illegal path, which is to legalize marijuana in a way that violates Canada's international legal obligations."

More recently, a group of international drug policy scholars argued in iPolitics that "Ottawa would be wise to be protective of Canada’s positive reputation as a country that upholds international law."

"But there is no need to postpone the regulation of cannabis, and there is also no reason to rush to withdraw from the drug treaties — certainly not before the relevant legislation has even become law, and not even immediately afterwards," they wrote.

Canadians can expect the argument over Canada's international drug treaty obligations to re-enter the news cycle in the coming months, as the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade begins studying Bill C-45.

Conservative Senator Paul E. McIntyre has also raised the issue of violating international drug treaties twice in Senate debates about C-45, suggesting the issue is a topic of interest for the Senate Conservative caucus.

Senator Tony Dean, who's sponsoring C-45 in the Senate, offered his take on drug treaty obligations in response to a question from McIntyre on Nov. 30, 2017:

"I've looked at those treaty obligations, and I am convinced that the current approach to cannabis criminalization in Canada is clearly in violation of its treaty obligations to reduce the use of cannabis and to tackle illicit drug markets," said Dean.

"We can't do any worse, senators, than we're doing with cannabis today in being responsive to our international treaty obligations. We can only do better. This is an approach that I think would do better."

New on The Leaf

  • See you in court: Cannabis industry bigwig Chuck Rifici says he'll spend $25,000 funding the first legal challenge to the cannabis-impaired driving provisions laid out in Bill C-46. The self-described "hard-core, card-carrying Liberal" says he's disappointed in the government's approach to testing drivers for cannabis impairment.
  • A 'huge mistake': Here's your daily reminder that cannabis use isn't limited to teenagers and other miscreants — a Mississippi police chief is in hot water after a video came out showing him smoking weed at home.
  • Safe spaces: In the latest sign of discord between the U.S. government and states where cannabis is legal, some local politicians are considering "sanctuary status" to protect cannabis businesses from the long arm of federal law.

Elsewhere on the Weed Wide Web

  • White dudes posing with weed: Six Canadian cannabis industry execs put their best faces forward in this CBC News photo essay by Terry Reith.
  • Cannabis in court: A Kingston, Ont. judge declined to saddle an employee of an illegal marijuana dispensary with a criminal record. Justice Larry O'Brien found the 23-year-old woman was "vulnerable and manipulated," reports Sue Yanagisawa for the Kingston Whig-Standard.
  • Cleanup on aisle 420: Someone left a shopping cart full of cast-off cannabis trimmings in front of a B.C. home, prompting local RCMP to respond with rubber gloves and garbage bags. Global News has exclusive footage of police officers raking up cannabis leaves.

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