Drug Policy

The Helpless Anger of U.N. Drug Warriors

The International Narcotics Control Board stands athwart reform, yelling, "Stop!" Is anyone listening?


Although marijuana remains illegal in the Netherlands, in 1976 the Dutch government began tolerating retail sales of small amounts by so-called coffee shops. Thirty-eight years later, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), a U.N. agency that describes its mission as "monitoring and supporting Governments' compliance with the international drug control treaties," is still complaining about that policy. In its latest annual report, issued this week, the INCB notes that the Dutch "tolerance policy" (gedoogbeleid) "allows small amounts of cannabis to be sold and abused." (INCB officials, like hardline drug warriors everywhere, define all recreational consumption of marijuana as abuse.) According to the INCB, such tolerance is intolerable: "The Board reiterates its position that such 'coffee shops' are in contravention of the provisions of the international drug control conventions."

If the INCB does not like Amsterdam's cannabis cafés, which are technically illegal, you can imagine how it feels about Denver's state-licensed pot shops. Actually, you don't have to imagine. INCB President Raymond Yans, never one to hold back criticism of governments he deems insufficiently zealous in suppressing the consumption of arbitrarily proscribed intoxicants, spells it out in black and white. "We deeply regret the developments at the state level in Colorado and Washington, in the United States, regarding the legalization of the recreational use of cannabis," he writes. "INCB reiterates that these developments contravene the provisions of the drug control conventions, which limit the use of cannabis to medical and scientific use only."

The "developments" to which Yans refers involved the elimination of certain criminal penalties by ballot initiative, which he says the U.S. government should not allow. Yet under our federalist system, states have no obligation to punish everything Congress decides to treat as a crime, and the drug control treaties say compliance is subject to "constitutional limitations." So Yans is blowing smoke when he says the U.S. government is legally required to impose marijuana prohibition on recalcitrant states, something it has no power to do under our Constitution.

More generally, observes Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, "The INCB's claim that its narrow, restrictive interpretations of the [drug control] conventions override domestic constitutional law cannot stand in light of the actual wording of the conventions." The board's insistence that all countries conform to its reading of the anti-drug treaties, regardless of what their own laws say, is of a piece with the INCB's zero-tolerance scolding, the escalation of which may signal a worldwide re-evaluation of the never-ending, always failing war on drugs.

Although the INCB seems to see its role as whipping countries into line when they stray too far from the proper prohibitionist path, that function was not part of its mandate when it was created by the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961. "The INCB was created to oversee the flow of narcotics internationally, making sure that countries can meet their licit requirements for essential pain medicines while monitoring to ensure that licit supplies don't seep into the illicit market," says John Collins, coordinator of the International Drug Policy Project at the London School of Economics. "The INCB fundamentally was created as a number-crunching and technocratic body that is supposed to provide technical assistance for international control efforts in a cooperative way. Its current role as global enforcer or 'guardian' of the treaties, as they like to call themselves, is not mentioned in any treaty." Beginning in the 1970s, Collins says, the United States and other "ideologically prohibitionist states" transformed the INCB into a bully pulpit dedicated to promoting their agenda. As a result, he says, the board "is consistently willing to overstep its treaty mandate and advocate a set of policies that have no basis in either science or treaty law."

A recent INCB position paper, for example, criticizes the Supreme Court of Canada for "permitting a 'drug injection room' to continue to operate in Vancouver." The INCB is referring to Insite, a nonprofit, government-subsidized clinic where addicts inject drugs under medical supervision. Insite, which does not supply drugs and offers addiction treatment along with health care, aims to reduce overdose deaths, the transmission of blood-borne diseases such as AIDS and hepatitis, and other medical problems associated with unsafe injection practices. A 2011 study published by The Lancet found that overdose deaths had fallen by 35 percent in the neighborhood near Insite since the clinic opened, compared to 9 percent in Vancouver as a whole. "Insite saves lives," the Canadian Supreme Court declared that year. "Its benefits have been proven." The court ordered the federal health minister to continue granting Insite an exemption under Canada's Controlled Drugs and Substances Act so that addicts could use it without fear of arrest.

That ruling was based on the court's interpretation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. "The court said that the government had violated [drug users'] constitutional rights to security of the person, to liberty, and to life by denying [the] exemption," Elliott says. "In other words, to extend a blanket criminal prohibition on drug possession so far as to even criminalize people using a health facility such as Insite is to violate human rights and is unconstitutional because it is overly broad and because it has a grossly disproportionate impact on the health of people needing such a service. These are fundamental principles of justice that form part of Canada's constitutional law, and therefore any obligation alleged to exist under the drug control conventions is subject to them."

The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs says compliance is subject to "constitutional limitations" and undertaken with "due regard to [signatories'] constitutional, legal and administrative systems." The 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances and the 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances contain similar provisions. The 1988 treaty says a country's criminalization of possession for personal use is "subject to its constitutional principles and the basic concepts of its legal system."

Furthermore, as noted in a 2002 memo from lawyers at the U.N. Drug Control Program (now subsumed by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime), harm reduction programs like Insite can be defended as fulfilling the treaty obligation to "treat, rehabilitate and reintegrate drug addicts." Such efforts, the memo says, also would be consistent with a U.N. resolution calling for policies aimed at "reducing the adverse consequences of drug abuse." Yet the INCB insists there is no such leeway, because safe injection sites "promote social and legal tolerance of drug abuse."

The INCB takes the same stance regarding "safer crack kits," which typically include a glass stem, a rubber mouthpiece, and brass screens; they sometimes also come with hand wipes, alcohol swabs, and lip balm. Richard Elliott's organization explains that the kits are intended to "reduce the risk of burned or cracked lips and the associated risk of becoming infected with blood-borne viruses such as HCV or HIV." But according to the INCB, governments that allow the distribution of such kits, like governments that tolerate safe injection sites, are failing to meet their treaty obligations.

"There is no legal basis for that position," says Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, director of the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program. "The drug control treaties limit certain drug-related activities to medical and scientific purposes. Public health is the driving ethos behind heroin-assisted therapy and supervised consumption rooms. This organization's discomfort with harm reduction is ideologically driven, and it has nothing to do with the drug control treaties."

If harm reduction is apt to irk the INCB, how can a country win the board's praise? Ask the Saudis. In last year's annual report, the INCB saluted "the commitment of the Government of Saudi Arabia to comply with its obligations under the three international drug control conventions to which it is a party" and commended "the country's government agencies involved in drug control for their commitment and efforts in the fight against drug abuse and drug trafficking." Those efforts include cutting off the heads of drug traffickers, which the Saudi government did at least 82 times in 2011, according to a 2012 report from Harm Reduction International.

When that organization asked about the INCB's position on the death penalty for drug offenses, the board was suddenly keen to respect "internal law," which it deems irrelevant in the context of harm reduction and marijuana decriminalization. "The determination of sanctions applicable to drug-related offences," the INCB said, "remains the exclusive prerogative of each State and therefore lie[s] beyond the mandate and powers which have been conferred upon the Board by the international community."

About those powers: Does it really matter what the board says? Maybe not, says Alex Kreit, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law who specializes in drug policy. "I think it's telling," he says, that the INCB "references decades-old policies in the examples of things it dislikes: coffee shops, safe injection sites, medical marijuana laws. The INCB has complained for years about these things, but at the end of the day, that's really all it can do. It doesn't have any direct enforcement authority over parties to the Single Convention. All it can do is say 'you're out of compliance' and, at worst, recommend that other treaty parties stop the import/export of drugs to the countries it doesn't like. As a result, I believe the more statements like this that the INCB puts out, the sillier it makes itself look."

This article originally appeared at Forbes.

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  1. I’m a little bit more optimistic and see these as death throes.

    1. Hmmm, if they are anything like a tape worm, the results will not be pretty

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  2. So they’ll be kicking down doors in frustration rather than anger?

    1. slow on the draw today?

    2. Yes, that and they’ll start beating their wives and children. “You’re just like Colorado you fucking whore!” In the places they still control, like Louisiana, they’ll come down even harder on the heretics. Dark days ahead. It’s either the darkness before the sunrise or it’s death. Maybe both. Definitely death for Louisianians.

  3. I guess World Government means no policy can ever change. Imagine if the UN had formed in the middle ages: we’d still have and International Witchcraft Control Board.

    1. No one needs more than 7 familiars.

      1. I have no idea what that means, but I am certain it is awesome.

        1. Floating pets of various shapes and powers.

      2. Familiars besides traditional options (cats, cats, and more cats) are clearly not in line with the spirit of the Articles of Familiarization and must be outlawed.

    2. While the IWCB would still be on the books, there would also be an International Wiccan Support Agency, to help oppressed pagans overcome centuries of prejudice.

    3. I say! Then Spain and Portugal would go before the Blue Chamber and accuse each other of having designs on Witches of Mass Destruction. The Blue Ones would hem and haw, then side with the one with most persuasive furrowing of the brow and waterboard (which would change weekly). ONE HUNDRED AND FOUR SCORE years of utter senseless massacre would result. Duly observed by Blue Helmets.

      1. Wait… I thought that WAS what happened.

  4. “The determination of sanctions applicable to drug-related offences,” the INCB said, “remains the exclusive prerogative of each State and therefore lie[s] beyond the mandate and powers which have been conferred upon the Board by the international community.”

    So, if we keep the drugs illegal but change the penalty to “the local correctional board shall administer one slap to the wrist with a standard wooden ruler for each ounce of contraband,” we’ll be in compliance with their view of the treaty, and they will love us again — right?

  5. can you imagine the reaction of the right in this country if the u.n. had made similar arguments about how lax gun control contravenes international law. they’d be calling for summary executions outside the u.n. building.

    1. To be fair, gun rights are more important than pot rights, I think we all agree.

      And there is no need to imagine, every time the UN even thinks about guns the right flips their shit, a quick search on google shows.

      1. really? tens of thousands of people are locked up for marijuana violations every year. who is doing this to gun owners?

        1. I have to ask, is your moniker sarcastic?

          Because I’m having a hard time figuring out how to respond to you.

          But okay, a good point, but an issue with our criminal justice system more than it really is to do with pot by itself.

          What I basically said, though, is the right to bear arms is more important than the right to put whatever in your body. I don’t see the point in chastising the right for being vigilant on one of our most important rights.

          1. PaulW|3.10.14 @ 12:00PM|#
            “I have to ask, is your moniker sarcastic?”

            AFAIK, it is not. S/he truly is an un-reconstructed brain-dead socialist, fully supporting the economic system responsible for 100,000,000 innocent deaths in the 20th century.

            1. so you are saying there’s a reason i shouldn’t look forward to a day where we put these Wall Street leaches in reeducation camps?

              1. Yep. Because putting people in reeducation camps is evil even if they’re assholes. Certainly, even if I was convinced they were pure evil, I’d stop at expropriating/exiling them. No need to throw on enslavement on top of theft.

                Setting that aside, history teaches us that such violence eventually morphs to target a much larger segment of the population, most of which have done absolutely nothing wrong (even by socialist definitions of right and wrong).

                The Holodomor in Ukraine is a perfect example of what happens. The Cultural Revolution in China is another.

              2. If you have to ask, you’re not smart enough to handle the answer.

                1. kidding on the square. maybe people from bulgaria and the ideologically blinkered don’t get that.

        2. “really? tens of thousands of people are locked up for marijuana violations every year. who is doing this to gun owners?”

          Unless, of course, those gun owners ALSO are in possession of marijuana, in which case their sentences are often for life.

          Also, gun owners in New York City, Chicago, the entire nation of Great Britain, etc., are locked up for gun violations every year.

    2. We don’t need the UN to do it- IIRC, one of our own, our next President Hillary Clinton basically said that. Too lazy to google up the fairly recent reference…

      If not her, then “I need guns like a hole in the head” Gabby Giffords or The Brady Bunch undoubtedly said something similar.

      Fuck all of ’em anyway.

      1. Remember when the Clintons were much closer to being classic liberals than they were progressives? Or was that just Bill?

        1. I have to admit, I had little issue with Bubba’s domestic policy. Esp in comparison to BOOOOOOOSH terms 1-4.

          Foreign? All fucked up. Domestic? I can’t compain too much.

          Plus – BUDGET SURPLUS!!! /shriek

        2. That was Congress, and Bill being smart enough to outsource Universal Health Care to his wife.

          1. Meh, I’ll give credit where it is due. Today’s Democrats are nothing like yesteryears. Of course they’ll take credit for the economy back then, but whatevs.

    3. We don’t have to imagine it. International treaties, both current and in prospect, have been invoked in support of tougher gun control. And the Gun Rights Right DID go ballistic.

      Didn’t you hear the din where you were?

      1. And, partly because of their noise, many of those interpretations were not accepted, and other treaties were not even signed or ratified in the first place.
        Anyway, a treaty cannot overrule US law nor the US Constitution, despite the disturbed fantasies of the International Workers’ Party fanclub.

    4. Ah yes, that must be why there is a sculpture of a joint tied in a knot in front of the UN.

  6. Shorter Yans: “Respect mah Athoratah!”

    Seriously, he’s just screeching because he’s realizing how toothless he is.

    1. how toothless he is

      I dunno. Motherfucker got some Beaver incisors there. I think he could open a Coke with them toofies, no prob.

  7. notes from the tyrannical, statist faction from the socialist hellhole of california..,

    1. On the marijuana issue, state Democrats “support the legalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana, in a manner similar to that of tobacco or alcohol,” the platform reads.

      I found sarcasm that wasn’t applicable in your sentence. Is there a word for that?

      1. we’re running a 4 billion dollar surplus out here and leading the country in job gowth and have universal health care in san francisco. you?

        1. WOW! Where are getting your numbers? More to the point, what are you smoking, and can I have some?

          1. Aaahhh… I think my sarcasm detector is broken. Oh, no, wait, I just had it turned off. Sorry, operator error.

        2. Yep, a surplus based on collecting higher taxes, and now a whole lot of progressives want to take that money and put it back into expanding entitlement programs. That will guarantee another huge deficit in a few years, when the economy takes another down-turn (as the economy always will), and then another tax hike. And so forth. It’s has happened before. I know, I have lived here for 56 years. Meanwhile CA, the (what?) ninth largest economy in the world, has an unemployment rate of 8.5%, fifth highest in the U.S. Yep, things are just rosy here in CA.

    2. Pro-legalization groups learned to save their energy for better years; they plan to back legalization on the California ballot again in 2016

      Why wait? California democrats control the legislature completely. Couldn’t they legalize marijuana during any session of the state legislature? Why wait until 2016?

      What’s up with the democracy, will of the people stuff and all that?

  8. NOW I’m placing Yans. He’s Mitch “Tippy the Turtle” McConnell’s more-pussified, puffy and un-perspicacious relative. The resemblance is UNcanny.

  9. If we pull out of the UN, there is no UN, so who cares?

    1. I think Obama uses them as an excuse – “I’d love to do more to please you druggies, but the darned UN won’t let me!”

  10. Just denounce the UN drug treaties – only about 1 yrs notice is required. Then, if he *must,* Obama can re-submit these treaties to the Senate with a reservation in favor of marijuana (hopefully the Senate will reject it). This is the same course the Equadorian govt took with Indian coca-leaf chewing.

    1. denounce = deratify

  11. Fanaticism is based in emotion and irrationality. Pointing out the logical inconsistencies in a fanatic’s opinion will only force that person to double down on the beliefs.

    1. If this is true, then what is the recourse?

      I pick waterboarding.

      1. Route around them. Ignore them. Make what they want completely irrelevant.

        In this case they have no enforcement power, so it’s really easy to do. Just legalize everything an let them choke on their own bile.

  12. “One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”

    Carl Sagan

    1. hah… nice one. knowing Carl’s politics he was probably referring to Great Leader Reagan. if only he read more Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard… sad, really

      1. Ayn Rand was a horrible writer of sanctimonious tomes full of caricatures rather than characters, “novels” that any decent editor could have easily pruned to being half as long. Further, she was a creepy, not nice person, and her scribbling has given undeserved ammunition to the critics of libertarian-ism, while convincing entire generations of college kids that they know what libertarians believe, when actually what they are reading is Randianism.

  13. Fuck them and their butthurt asses.

  14. “The best thing the UN can do right now is to go condo…” – Robin Williams, 1986

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