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U.N. Still Doesn’t Support Cannabis Legalization

Sarah Hayes
human rights first

The U.N. 2019 World Drug Report has no direct support of cannabis, only a call for alternatives to incarceration.

Fortunately, the latest report appears to be a shift from enforcement-focused policies of the past. There is, however, one glaring omission in the U.N.’s official stance on cannabis – legalization recommendations. The policy document highlights the need to put human rights first, without indicating that legalization would accomplish as such.

Journalists around the globe are reporting that the U.N. supports cannabis legalization, but it seems these claims are completely unfounded.

The confusion may have arisen from a legalization recommendation made by the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO is a body under the UN that advocates for a rescheduling of cannabis under international drug treaties.

UN Human rights first

Alternatively, the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime, that dictates U.N. policy on drugs, are currently only advocating for alternatives to incarceration. This is to be in the form of drug courts that put human rights first.

Heather Haase, Chair of the New York NGO Committee on Drugs, says that the U.N.’s approach isn’t comprehensive enough.

Is This Really Human Rights First?

Haase believes that the U.N. focuses too much of its efforts on treatment and prevention, yet, they do not give enough weight toward harm reduction.

However, she does applaud the U.N. for a report titled “What We Have Learned in the Last Ten Years: A Summary of Knowledge Acquired and Produced by the U.N. System on Drug-Related Matters.” This paper heavily influenced the direction of the 2019 World Drug Report.

The report highlights a few statistical trends, including a rise in cocaine production; the emergence of a huge synthetic opioid market; and a resulting increase in overdose deaths. Regarding cannabis and hallucinogens, the report discusses an emerging market for these drugs with rapid changes occurring in legal status for member countries.

The data used to create the report is incomplete, however, as reporting statistics is voluntary for member states.

human rights first world health organization

Haase Criticizes the Data Holes in the Report

Haase believes the report to be lopsided, giving focus to stats regarding the alleged increase in cannabis consumption for countries that have relaxed their cannabis laws.

For example, most data points relied on self-reporting cannabis consumption. It is not difficult to believe that people living in legal regions would be more likely to report consumption. Cannabis advocates also balk against the implication that a rise in usage is a negative outcome.

Legal U.S. states report multiple positives from legalization. These include: a decrease in cannabis arrests, an increase in jobs, no change in youth consumption rates, and a decrease in arrests for alcohol and other drugs.

Debate Over 2019 World Drug Report’s Accuracy

On the one side are cannabis advocates, such as Haase, who takes issue with several points, including the focus on THC levels in cannabis products. It’s certainly true that we need further long-term research on health implications for high-THC products, however we can regulate THC levels as this data emerges. There is no justification to act pre-emptively. Haase believes the report gives too much value to the issue of THC concentrations and this misrepresents the actual risk these products pose. This sort of rhetoric also does a disservice to patients that need high THC levels to manage pain.

One group that certainly agrees with the risks outlined in the report is Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM). This is an anti-legalization group who reported their position to Forbes via Kevin A. Sabet, the president of SAM:

“The U.N.’s position is not based on ideologies or parties; it is based on science. The science on marijuana is clear: today’s marijuana is much more harmful than in the past, and is directly linked to mental illness, like psychosis and schizophrenia, heart problems, memory and cognition issues, and dangerous driving.”

world cannabis

What Influence Does This Report Have?

Some accuse the U.N.of sowing seeds of doubt to the international community, resulting in the appearance that legalization is a failure. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The U.N. held an inter-sessional meeting in June, 2019, during which WHO answered questions about their rescheduling recommendations for cannabis. It is likely the WHO’s recommendations will have more influence over member states.

Legalization would have been the most effective way to put human rights first. Instead, the 2019 World Drug Report advocated policies of drug death prevention. It is a great irony that members in favor of prohibition will be able to continue unjust incarceration efforts…because legalization is not recommended.


Sarah Hayes

Sarah is an American expat living in Spain with her husband and little doggie. She comes from a performing arts and teaching background with a degree from the University of London. For the past 3 years Sarah has worked in and written about the legal cannabis industry both in Spain and the US. She cares about sharing her passion for cannabis, yoga, healthy lifestyles, counterculture and travel trough writing and social media.

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