Time to reform international drug treaties

Time to reform international drug treaties


Saturday, January 31, 2015

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THE report 'Ganja worry' (Jamaica Observer, January 29, 2015), presents the thinking of William R Brownfield, assistant secretary of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, on the recent developments of the new ganja regime in Jamaica. He was quick to point out that this change will see increased export of the crop to the United States, and warned of Jamaica's legal obligation to the international treaties.

He speaks as if Jamaica is the only country moving towards change. He is obviously oblivious about changes all over the world, including its major ally Israel. The international treaties Jamaica has signed are not written in stone. They were prepared for a world very much different from the present. Their foundations were built on myths and anecdotal evidence. Since 1922, there have been many commissions and research projects providing scientific studies, dispelling those myth and anecdotal evidence. The time has come to reform those treaties. Who will lead the process in Jamaica?

Further, what is the nature of the treaties? How can we approach the discussion for reform? The history of international accords on drugs began with the Indian Hemp Commission of 1894. It looked at cannabis sativa and saw no evil in the smoking of the plant. It provides early history of the spiritual and medicinal uses of the plant.

What may have been a domestic concern with the British colonial leaders in India was followed by the Opium Convention of 1912. The latter was the forerunner to the Geneva Convention of 1925 calling for greater control over not just opium, but also, for the first time, cannabis was mentioned as "Indian Hemp".

The Hague, 1912, looked at the domestic control of drugs, while the Geneva Convention called for global control. The UN Single Convention 1961 developed codification of narcotic substances and rules for international control (prohibition) of the drug for medicinal and scientific purposes, and also to prevent the smoking of psychotropic substances. This treaty called for the prohibition of the natural drug, such as cannabis, that is produced in the Third World (south). On the contrary, the 1972 Protocols on Psychotropic Substances speaks to the regulation of the synthetic alternatives of those drugs produced in the North.

One of the earliest studies of marijuana use took place in Panama (1916-29) among US military personnel in the Canal Zone. This was followed by the LaGuardia Commission (1944), Baroness Wooten Report (1968), and probably one of the most important studies, Ganja smoking in Jamaica (Comitas and Rubin, 1971). They all have one thing in common; they are all scientific-based and help to dispel the myth, lies and propaganda about ganja smoking. In the past, government policies held on fast to the myths. But, in today's world, many countries are developing new regimes for marijuana for many reasons.

Public policies worldwide

The international community is witnessing major changes in the law relating to cannabis. There is, of course, widespread activities geared at decriminalisation in some areas and legalisation in others. There are extensive cases in North America, South and Central America, and Europe.

The liberal approach for the Netherlands from 1976 was followed by a host of other European countries. Uruguay, on December 10, 2010, became the first country in the world to legalise production, sale and distribution of cannabis. The USA "war on drugs" has, therefore, failed.

At the 2012 US midterm elections was that watershed moment for pot politics in the USA. The 2014 US midterm elections gave rise to legalisation for recreational use in Colorado and Washington (state). In similar results, in these 2014 midterm elections, legalisation for recreational use has swept over Alaska, Oregon, Washington, DC. The medical marijuana community in the USA has shown immense benefits of cannabis for the sick. They have shown also the possibility of increased earnings through taxation from legal marijuana.

In some areas in Canada the struggle for change is led by the people, and in other areas by the Government. Canada has produced two useful studies that provide instructive approaches and to guide the preparation of papers calling for changes in the international treaties concerning cannabis, more specifically medical marijuana. Canada, like the USA and the Netherlands, is among the main countries in the 'North' planting cannabis. Plus, important changes have taken place in Latin America and Africa to join this thrust. Perhaps that country could become a major partner in this effort to reform the treaties.

Challenging the international treaties

There are some important observations made by the Canadian Special Senate Committee (2002) for profound changes in the international legal environment. The political justification of the position is preceded by three important observations of the international treaties:

1. There is a major problem regarding definition of the terms drugs, narcotics and psychotropics;

2. There is also the arbitrary and inconsistent nature of classification of drugs such as cannabis with heroin and cocaine; and

3. The concerns about the dangers of drugs and public health are not consistent in relation to the use of alcohol and tobacco. These are not controlled substances.

The international regime for the control of drugs is beyond any moral qualities; it even has racist roots. First and foremost, it is a system that reflects the geopolitics of North-South relations in the 20th century [1961 treaty]. Indeed, the strictest controls were placed on organic substances -- the cocoa bush, the poppy and the cannabis plant -- which often formed part of the ancestral traditions of the countries where these plants originated [South]. The North's cultural products -- tobacco and alcohol -- were ignored, and the synthetic substances produced by the North's pharmaceutical industries were subjected to regulation rather than prohibition [1981 Protocols].

The 1988 Convention forced countries in the South to apply extraordinary and excessive force on their own people. The conventions "forced developing countries to abolish all non-medical and non-scientific uses of the plants that for centuries had been embedded in social, cultural and religious traditions". This and other conventions have failed to cut worldwide production of drugs as they emerged at a time when there was no scientific knowledge of the effect of cannabis.

It is important, therefore, to interrogate the drug conventions and "the practices that emerge from their domestic implementation from the perspectives of international human rights law". This human rights perspective is important in promoting the international drug control law and also to "promote human rights-compliant implementation of the internal drug conventions at the domestic level".

Another observer notes that "the treaties were negotiated and adopted in an era when both illicit markets and understanding of their operation bore little resemblance to those of today". Who, then, will lead the charge to reform the international treaties?


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