Uruguay Vs. The International Narcotics Control Board

Uruguay is about to regulate and tax the sale of marijuana. The legislature passed a law that will go into effect this spring that legalizes the consumption and sale of marijuana for recreational use.

It will be the first country in the world to do so and one international monitoring body tasked with drug control is less than pleased.

The head of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), a UN body that monitors four international treaties dealing with drugs, harshly criticized the move today. According to the INCB, Uruguay is now in violation of the 1961 “Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs” to which Uruguay is a state party. They are technically correct:  The Single Convention requires state parties to restrict the use of cannabis for medical and scientific purposes only.

The President of the INCB Raymond Yans of Belgium slammed Uruguay in unusually blunt criticism of a member state:

“The decision of the Uruguayan legislature fails to consider its negative impacts  on health since scientific studies confirm that cannabis is an addictive substance with serious consequences for people’s health. In particular, the use and abuse of cannabis by young people can seriously affect their development…Such a decision  “will not protect young people but rather have the perverse effect of encouraging early experimentation, lowering the age of first use, and thus contributing to developmental problems and earlier onset of addiction and other disorders.”

From an international perspective, this presents something of a quandary. The INCB can take measures to formally censure Uruguay, which entails sending a sternly-worded report to the UN’s Economic and Social Council. But that will be the full extent of Uruguay’s punishment. Uruguay may or may not pull out of the 1961 convention before that happens, though there are surely other parts of the convention to which Uruguay probably enthusiastically subscribes.

Also, Uruguay’s action–and the International Narcotics Control Board ‘s reaction–comes just two weeks before laws permitting the recreational use of cannabis comes into effect in US states of Colorado and Washington, which collectively have a population about three times that of Uruguay. This will undermine the treaty even deeper considering the USA’s heretofore support for global narcotics control efforts.

The most likely outcome of this fracas is that the 1961 Single Convention will be weakened to the point where state parties’ agree that it must be amended to exclude cannabis. Treaties are only effective to the extent that states implement and enforce their provisions and there is simply not as much consensus  about cannabis as there was half a century ago. This does not mean that cannabis will be universally decriminalized, only that countries will agree to disagree about its legal status.

So, in the not-too-distant future, I predict the 1961 Single Convention will likely go up in smoke.