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Canadian and Mexican Lawmakers Seek Broad Leeway From U.N. Drug Summit

April 7, 2016

Federal lawmakers from Canada and Mexico this week called on the United Nations to give countries broad leeway to regulate cannabis within their borders, part of an effort to sway international debate in the days leading up to the world’s largest drug war symposium in nearly 20 years.

“The war on drugs is a failure,” said Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, a member of Canada’s House of Commons and one of a number of speakers who talked to reporters Wednesday on a conference call arranged by StoptheDrugWar.org, an organization that works to end prohibition worldwide. “It causes more problems than it solves,” the lawmaker said.

One clear takeaway from the call: Canada and Mexico want to move forward with legalization, even if the United States and other countries won’t get on board. “We made a promise in the election,” Erskine-Smith said, referring to pledges by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and others to legalize cannabis. “We’re committing to keeping that promise.”

A country’s decision to ditch the drug war, however, carries international implications. Current global drug policies were built on a paradigm of prohibition. Moving forward means updating treaties that still favor criminalization over regulation.

In Mexico, which is expected to pass a medical cannabis bill in the coming months, some worry that strict guidance from the U.N. could hamper progress. “We should be more honest about the so-called flexibility of implementation,” said Mexican Sen. Laura Angélica Rojas Hernández, noting that many countries feel they lack the freedom to define their own domestic drug policies.

As for the United States? In case you’ve been asleep, the feds still aren’t too keen on cannabis. Notwithstanding moves by states to establish regulated markets, the U.S. government still recognizes no medical benefit and deems the plant worthy of tighter regulation than opium or cocaine.

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The differing opinions among the three countries is a microcosm of what’s happening globally within the United Nations. Some member states have taken permissive stances, like Uruguay, which legalized the production and use of cannabis in 2013. Countries like Singapore and Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, still threaten the death penalty for cannabis crimes.

How to reform international treaties around cannabis and drug policy is among the many issues delegates will bandy about during the upcoming U.N. General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem, or UNGASS, to be held at the U.N. Headquarters from April 19 to April 21 (no joke).

It’s the biggest drug summit in two decades, and a lot has changed since the last one — except maybe unintended irony. The UNGASS of 1998 bore the slogan, “A Drug-Free World – We can do it!”

While representatives from some countries will arrive at the U.N. willing to acknowledge things didn’t exactly go as planned, others want to prop up the past policy. “We want a drug-free society, not a drug-tolerant one,” a senior state minister in Singapore wrote recently.

“It’s really alarming that this doctrine is going to the UNGASS,” said Canadian Drug Policy Coalition Executive Director Donald MacPherson, another speaker on Wednesday’s call. “I find it hard to understand, really, why countries like Russia and Singapore are holding other countries hostage.”

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True to form, the U.S. government has been sending mixed messages as the U.N. session approaches. Some State Department officials have argued for the right of countries to set their own drug policies, but both the White House and federal authorities vocally oppose legalization.

David Borden, StoptheDrugWar.org’s executive director, predicted the hardline U.S. position “is likely to have less legitimacy” in the eyes of the international community as more states adopt medical or adult-use policies.

“It is great that things are moving in all three countries,” MacPherson agreed. A little more than a decade ago, even simple decriminalization couldn’t find traction with lawmakers. Today, “60 percent of Canadians want a legal and regulated market for cannabis.”

“We’re delighted the government is developing a process,” he said. “We urge them not to take too long in getting this out of the gate.”

Canadian lawmaker Erskine-Smith said he hopes Canada will be able to roll out a federal adult-use cannabis program in the next two years. Experiments in the U.S. “have been helpful to show Canadians who are a bit concerned about regulation and legalization that is is possible and it can be done in an orderly way,” he added, noting that Canada will likely be less open to commercial advertising than states like Colorado have been.

In the meantime, Erskine-Smith said, Canadian authorities need to stop making arrests for cannabis crimes: “My government needs to treat this more seriously than it is.”

In Mexico, recent hearings and public debates “have shown there is a significant consensus” on allowing medical use, said Sen. Rojas Hernández. As for adult use, that’s a matter that needs “further discussion” to hammer out differences in opinion, she said. “I think the most important thing is that we are taking a position to change the rules of the game in Mexico on this topic.”

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Much of Wednesday’s call was a laundry list of prohibition’s ills — high costs, crowded prisons, and a violent underground market, to name a few — the kind of things that are common knowledge in the cannabis community but were refreshing to hear from federal politicians. Other observations carried shock value by putting numbers on the problem.

In Mexico, “60 percent of federal prisoners are there to pay for drug crimes,” said Aram Barra, a member of the Mexican Society for Responsible and Tolerant Personal Use, which recently won a case before the Mexican Supreme Court allowing some residents to grow and use cannabis. If future cases fall the same way, that could become the law of the land.

More striking, Barra said, about a third of Mexican prisoners — 12,000 people — have lost their liberty for simple cannabis prohibition “in a country where 98 percent of kidnappings go unresolved.”

“It is very clear to us that the current model is not working,” he said. “What the rest of the world may do with that statement, that is the question that lies before UNGASS.”

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Ben Adlin

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor who specializes in cannabis politics and law. He was a news editor for Leafly from 2015-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @badlin

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