The World Drug Report is prepared and issued annually by the United Nations.
One of the mainstays of world drug policy puts two opposites at almost eternal odds. On one hand, we have the irrefutable fact that people — no matter their background, skin color or religious or political persuasion — like to alter their consciousness. On the other, we have worldwide policies intended to prohibit us from doing just that.
It’s quite the conundrum. Humans have been using alcohol, cannabis and all kinds of other substances for centuries. But instead of focusing on the reasons behind this, policies remain in place that attempt to control drug use by trying to eliminate all “dangerous” substances. Despite their efforts, people still use these substances for a host of reasons, whether it’s religious, medicinal, for pain relief, and yes, even to elevate oneself. The attempt to stop the flow of illegal substances has never accomplished much beyond headlines and photos of seized plants and bricks.
International cannabis policy is still governed by the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, convened in 1961 and updated in 1971 and 1988 by the United Nations. In total, 185 countries are signatories to the Single Convention treaties, and there is much confusion in terminology and how each country applies its own laws to conform to those standards.
In the roughly 60 years since current world policies were created and enacted, public opinion, which heavily supported those policies back then, have come almost full circle. Many Single Convention signatories are having second thoughts. Uruguay and Canada have legalized cannabis in their countries, and it’s no longer a partisan issue here — 11 states and the District of Columbia have legalized adult-use. The World Health Organization last year asked the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs to remove cannabis from the list of dangerous drugs when it meets later this year.
The Single Convention was based around the notion that addiction “constitutes a serious evil for the individual” and a social and economic obstruction to mankind. The conclusion was to implement an approach that includes incarceration for users and dealers and, except for medical and scientific purposes, elimination of all illegal drug products. It’s interesting to note that the U.S. has been one of the leading lights in that effort. Its passage of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, with its various schedules for illegal drugs, was due in part to fulfill Single Convention obligations.
The change in attitudes is reflected all over the United Nations’ World Drug Report 2020. Released this month, it finds that cannabis is by far the most used substance studied, with an estimated 192 million users in 2018, almost 4 percent of the global population. Opioids come in second, with 58 million users, but as it notes, health consequences associated with drugs are confined to amphetamines, cocaine, heroin and synthetic drugs. Though there are pages and pages about the negative health consequences, there is no mention of any associated with cannabis.
Cannabis use has been on the rise around the world, but especially in North America. The report says that 8.8 percent of Americans 15-64 use it in one form or another, with about 1 percent daily or near-daily users. When it comes to supply, the report finds that cannabis, which is grown around the world, is tough to qualify.
The amount of cannabis resin and flower worldwide being seized is declining, while the number of seizures themselves are up. These are the headlines you see over and over, bragging about their efficiency — “Police bust two pounds of marijuana,” “seller caught with pot, baggies, police say” — that dominate drug coverage in newspapers and on websites these days.
Much is being said and written these days about changing the way we use police for too many things. Legitimate questions are being asked about expenditures and use of resources. One easy start would be to stop spending huge amounts of time, effort and money on catching low-level cannabis dealers — most of whom are just selling to friends — and to stop arresting anyone for possession. Many jurisdictions are changing their policies in this regard, but Americans, especially those black- or brown-skinned, are still being arrested in ridiculous numbers for simple possession.
We might be a long way from legalization nationally or internationally. “While these policy considerations by global agencies bode well for cannabis reform, they’ll take years to implement,” Denver lawyer Robert Hoban noted in Forbes recently. “And that may lead to tightened controls and additional levels of regulation — perhaps not the outcome activists and lobbyists had envisioned for international cannabis policy reform.”
If legalization is going to take a lot longer than many of us believe, or hope, it’s just common sense to stop wasting police resources on simple possession or small-time cannabis sales. That I can stand on the border in Colorado free and clear for something someone else can be arrested for in Nebraska or Kansas for is wrong on every level. After decades of this mismanagement of resources, it should be obvious that people are not going to stop, no matter what a 60-year-old Convention or the Controlled Substances Act instructs. Could we just follow common sense for once?