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The International Narcotics Control Board's Role in the Cannabis Industry

April 12, 2018


When people think of marijuana regulations, usually state and country-level laws come to mind. But what about on an international level?


We'll take a deep dive into the subject to give stakeholders in the cannabis industry a necessary understanding of how the International Narcotic Control Board came to be, and why their rules and regulations matter to cannabis industry participants around the globe.


Before we dig into treaties, laws, and more, we wanted to take a brief look at Uruguay - the first country to legalize marijuana. 


Setting the Stage with Uruguay



When Uruguay legalized marijuana, the country was reprimanded by the United Nations Drug Administration’s International Narcotic Control Board, a.k.a. the INCB. Former INCB president Raymond Yans even went as far as to accuse Uruguay’s then-president Jose Mujica of having the “attitude of a pirate” because his government legalized cannabis.


While this decision may have ruffled some feathers, the crime rate in Uruguay has fallen 20% since legalization. By producing and pricing cannabis below cartels' break-even, Uruguay has pretty much blocked them out of the market. One would think that the international community would be thrilled to learn of such a quick way to drop crime rates. Not so...


Uruguay, which has been a member of the United Nations since 1945, is technically supposed to be following the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961. Deciding to do what's best for his own country, President Mujica went on and legalized cannabis anyways. As mentioned above, this has led to improvements for Uruguayan people, at the expense of pissing off the international stage.


This begs the question - what is the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961?


The UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961



The United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 aimed to combat worldwide drug abuse by implementing coordinated international action. The logic behind this treaty is that there are two forms of intervention and control that work together to combat drug abuse.


First and foremost, the treaty seeks to limit the possession, use, trade in, distribution, import, export, manufacture and production of drugs exclusively to medical and scientific purposes. Second, it combats drug trafficking through international cooperation to deter and discourage drug traffickers.


The treaty covers cannabis, coca, opium poppy, the opium plant’s raw materials, opiates, heroin, and some synthetic opioids such as methadone. Amended by the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971, the combined treaty now also includes amphetamines, barbiturates, LSD and more.  


The important points worth noting are:

  • Cannabis is classified alongside heroin.

  • The treaty is focused on limiting all drug-related activities to medical and scientific purposes only.


The first point does a great job of exemplifying just how outdated and ridiculous cannabis regulations can be. The latter is the key to why the INCB was so unhappy with Uruguay's decision to legalize marijuana for recreational use. It also happens to be the reason that countries like Germany are able to import medical marijuana from other countries without much backlash.


Besides just laying down guidelines, the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs also established the International Narcotics Control Board by merging two existing regulatory bodies: the Permanent Central Narcotics Board, created by the 1925 International Opium Convention; and the Drug Supervisory Body, created by the 1931 Convention for Limiting the Manufacture and Regulating the Distribution of Narcotic Drugs.


International Narcotics Control Board 101


The International Narcotics Control Board is a quasi-judicial regulatory body established by the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 detailed above. 


The INCB has 13 members, each elected by the Economic and Social Council for a period of five years, with the potential for re-election. Ten of the members are elected from a list of persons nominated by Governments. The remaining three members are elected from a list of persons nominated by the World Health Organization for their medical, pharmacological or pharmaceutical experience.


Members of the Board are supposed to be people who, "by their expertise, competence, impartiality and disinterestedness, will command general confidence." Once elected, INCB members are supposed to serve impartially in their personal capacity, independently of Governments. 


As we all know, politics doesn't always go how they are supposed to. 


So, What about Canada?



With Canada on the brink of recreational legalization, these regulations, treaties, and governing bodies are more important than ever. As it stands right now, Health Canada is in violation of Article 23, Paragraph 2d of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs for allowing licensed producers to sell directly to patients. 


Under the Single Convention's Article 23, a party that permits the cultivation of cannabis is supposed to establish, if it has not already done so, and maintain, one or more government agencies to carry out functions including but not limited to distribution.


Furthermore, Paragraph 2d requires cultivators to deliver all of their crops to said government agency. It even goes as far as to say that this should be done "as soon as possible, but not later than four months after the end of the harvest."


As it currently stands, Health Canada handles all of the permitting for licensed producers of medical marijuana under Canada's Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations, a.k.a. ACMPR.


Where Health Canada deviates from the Single Convention is that as the government agency responsible for permitting cultivators, they should be collecting all of the cannabis crops produced by the licensed producers in order to control the rest of the distribution process. Instead, licensed producers with sales permits deliver medical cannabis directly to patients via Canada Post. 


Once Canada rolls out adult-use this summer, they will be in even further violation of the Single Convention...not that it stopped Uruguay. 


At a recent Commission on Narcotic Drugs conference in Vienna, Hilary Geller made clear Canada’s interest in international cooperation, saying, “the Government remains committed to strong international cooperation to combat the world drug problem and wherever possible, will seek to align its objectives for a new marijuana regime with the objectives of the international drug control framework and the spirit of the Conventions.”


Despite Canada's commitment to international cooperation regarding drug control, the country has officially taken the stance of “non-compliance.”  


Getting Around the Single Convention



Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible for a member of the United Nations to legalize marijuana without coming into conflict with the international community. Uruguay and Canada have all dealt with this blow-back and have each tried different approaches to reconciling the international leaders' issues.




Until the Single convention is amended or altered, these countries as well as those that decide to legalize marijuana in the future will all have to deal with the fire and fury of the International Narcotics Control Board and the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961.


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