Canada on drugs at the UN: Standing up for a long-overdue policy shift

By Richard Elliott

The applause persisted until the chair of the session eventually gavelled it to an end. The occasion? Canada’s statement last month at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna, where countries were negotiating the text of a declaration to be adopted next week at the UN General Assembly’s Special Session on drugs (UNGASS) in New York.

The last time the General Assembly met on this issue was in 1998, when it absurdly declared it would pursue the goal of a “drug-free world,” largely through yet more drug law enforcement. The reality, of course, is that we cannot end drug use, whether problematic or otherwise, through prosecution and punishment. Indeed, a growing number of states are starting to openly question the orthodoxy of drug prohibition and calling for reform, while some countries are simply moving ahead with sensible, evidence-based reforms to their domestic laws in order to better protect both public health and safety.

Sadly, at the CND in Vienna, a faction of states ensured that the document going before the General Assembly next week falls far short of the promised action-oriented program that will respond to the current realities of the “the world drug problem.”

Hence, it was important that Canada’s applause-worthy statement read like a checklist of progressive drug policy positions, reflecting many points Canadian civil society groups have been advocating for years.

It included support for “harm reduction”—a phrase too controversial to yet appear in a resolution from this UN body, and a phrase opposed by Canada in recent years, alongside the likes of Russia—including needle and syringe programs, supervised injection sites and expanded access to naloxone to prevent fatal overdoses. It also included support for drug policies based on evidence and human rights. Categorical opposition to the death penalty “in all cases, everywhere,” including for drug offences.

And, to finish, a bonus: Canada’s plan to legalize and regulate cannabis, aligning itself with the objectives of the international drug control treaties “wherever possible.” Those two diplomatic words speak volumes. They tell the world that Canada recognizes that it cannot be held back by an outdated and harmful international drug-control system. In staking out that position, Canada also sets an important international precedent, requiring further principled leadership in the months and years ahead.

Countries such as Uruguay (moving ahead with a national plan for a regulated cannabis market) and the United States (some states have legalized and regulated cannabis) continue to claim that there is sufficient flexibility in the international drug control treaties to permit their legal, regulated markets. While their initiatives are welcome and so far successful, such claims are a legal fiction.

Countries certainly do have some flexibility under these treaties when it comes to national drug laws. For example, countries are free to decriminalize the possession of any drugs (and not just cannabis) for personal use. Some countries (Portugal, Czech Republic, for instance) have done so to varying degrees, with positive outcomes for public health and order, including reducing HIV infections. In keeping with its newfound commitment to more evidence-based approaches to drugs, Canada should learn from those experiences and move forward with decriminalizing simple possession of drugs.

However, it isn’t tenable, on any plain reading, to claim that that the treaties allow countries to go further by legalizing and regulating the production and sale of cannabis (for non-medical purposes).

This doesn’t mean Canada should abandon its sensible plan to experiment with cannabis legalization and regulation. Continued prohibition makes little sense, and the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs is long overdue for revision.

Instead, even as we move forward with cannabis regulation domestically, Canada should work with other states, and with UN agencies, academic experts and civil society groups, to offer reasoned, credible proposals for treaty reform. This would be a major contribution, a step towards ending the costly so-called war on drugs that has ravaged public health, systematically violated human rights and shattered millions of lives.

After a long silence, we’ve seen Canada applauded on the international stage. Health Minister Jane Philpott is set to lead Canada’s delegation at UNGASS—a forum for Canada to demonstrate a principled commitment to public health, to evidence, and to human rights, plus leadership in reforming failed international drug treaties.

Richard Elliott is the executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, a non-governmental human rights organization in special consultative status with the UN’s Economic and Social Council.

This op-ed was originally published in The Hill Times on Wednesday, April 13, 2016. The full article is available (with an account) at