One of the major stumbling blocks that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will face on the road to legalizing cannabis in Canada is the country's commitment to United Nations drug treaties. Canada has signed three specific agreements to prohibit the recreational use of substances, including cannabis.
But Canada may have gained an unexpected ally in a potential conflict with the U.N. On Feb. 22, German magazine Der Spiegel International published a passionate essay by Kofi Annan, who served as U.N. Secretary General from 1997 to 2006. Annan has called for nations to legalize cannabis as a way to combat the problem of drug abuse and illegal trafficking.
And Annan might know something about legalization in Canada that we don't. He wrote, "Canada looks likely to become the first G7 country to regulate the sale of cannabis next year." Maybe that's an educated guess about Trudeau's timetable, or maybe he's heard more about the Liberal government's plans than we have.
Here are five other highlights from his essay.
1. Drug laws pose a greater threat to people than drugs do
Punishment and ideology are more harmful to people than drugs, according to Annan:
"Drugs are dangerous, but current narcotics policies are an even bigger threat because punishment is given a greater priority than health and human rights. It's time for regulations that put lives and safety first....Policy based on common assumptions and popular sentiments can become a recipe for mistaken prescriptions and misguided interventions.....Nowhere is this divorce between rhetoric and reality more evident than in the formulation of global drug policies, where too often emotions and ideology rather than evidence have prevailed."
Annan illustrated his point by arguing that cannabis prohibition has been misguided, while attempts to deter opioid abuse through incarceration have failed.
"By looking carefully at the evidence from the United States, we now know that legalizing the use of cannabis for medical purposes has not, as opponents argued, led to an increase in its use by teenagers. By contrast, there has been a near tripling of American deaths from heroin overdoses between 2010 and 2013, even though the law and its severe punishments remain unchanged."
2. The War on Drugs is a War on People
Prohibition has failed to do what it was supposed to accomplish, according to Annan:
"Prohibition has had little impact on the supply of or demand for drugs. When law enforcement succeeds in one area, drug production simply moves to another region or country, drug trafficking moves to another route and drug users switch to a different drug. Nor has prohibition significantly reduced use. Studies have consistently failed to establish the existence of a link between the harshness of a country's drug laws and its levels of drug use. The widespread criminalization and punishment of people who use drugs, the over-crowded prisons, mean that the war on drugs is, to a significant degree, a war on drug users - a war on people."
3. Prison is more harmful than recreational drug use
Annan argued that incarceration deters people from seeking treatment, and it ruins the lives of young people:
"The tendency in many parts of the world to stigmatize and incarcerate drug users has prevented many from seeking medical treatment. In what other areas of public health do we criminalize patients in need of help? Punitive measures have sent many people to prison, where their drug use has worsened. A criminal record for a young person for a minor drug offence can be a far greater threat to their well-being than occasional drug use."
4. It's time to revise the drug treaties
The drug treaties don't fulfill their intended purpose, Annan contended:
"The original intent of drug policy, according to the UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs, was to protect the 'health and welfare of mankind.' We need to refocus international and national policy on this key objective."
To do that, Annan has called on nations to take four crucial steps toward improving drug laws (note the fourth point in particular):
I. Decriminalize recreational drugs: "The use of drugs is harmful and reducing those harms is a task for the public health system, not the courts. This must be coupled with the strengthening of treatment services, especially in middle and low-income countries."
II. Focus on harm reduction, not drug suppression: "We need to accept that a drug-free world is an illusion. We must focus instead on ensuring that drugs cause the least possible harm."
III. Regulate and educate: "We have to look at regulation and public education rather than the total suppression of drugs, which we know will not work. The steps taken successfully to reduce tobacco consumption...show what can be achieved. It is regulation and education, not the threat of prison, which has cut the number of smokers in many countries."
IV. Legalize marijuana: "Initial trends show us that where cannabis has been legalized, there has been no explosion in drug use or drug-related crime. The size of the black market has been reduced and thousands of young people have been spared criminal records. But a regulated market is not a free market. We need to carefully think through what needs regulating, and what does not. While most cannabis use is occasional, moderate and not associated with significant problems, it is nonetheless precisely because of its potential risks that it needs to be regulated."
5. The U.N. can lead a global shift this spring
Lastly, Annan called on world leaders to help the world change course on drug legislation:
"This year, between April 19 and 21, the United Nations General Assembly will hold a special session on drugs and the world will have a chance to change course. As we approach that event, we need to ask ourselves if we are on the right policy path. More specifically, how do we deal with what the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has called the "unintended consequences" of the policies of the last 50 years, which have helped, among other things, to create a vast, international criminal market in drugs that fuels violence, corruption and instability?"