State Marijuana Initiatives Put U.S. in the Hot Seat with the INCB

March 17, 2014

By John A. Gilbert

The 57th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (“CND”) recently convened in Vienna, Austria.  A prominent issue on the first day of the general session included concern over the increased use of cannabis, especially for recreational purposes.  The International Narcotics Control Board (“INCB”), which serves as the secretariat for the CND, has expressed a “long-standing concern” about the Netherlands’ policy that authorizes the use and abuse of cannabis in “coffee shops.”  In its latest annual report and at the meeting, the INCB identified a new target for this issue: the United States.  INCB, Report of the International Narcotics Control Board for 2013 (Mar. 4, 2014).  In the report, the INCB provides a detailed summary of the marijuana initiatives in the 21 states and the District of Columbia, while acknowledging that cannabis is still illegal under the Federal Controlled Substances Act.  Id. ¶ 374-375, at 49.  The INCB also noted the guidance issued by the Attorney General in addressing how the Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”) and other federal agencies should react to these state laws.  Id. ¶ 370, at 48.  It is clear that the INCB is not satisfied with either the state initiatives or the current federal response, concluding that the “use of cannabis in some states of the [U.S.] has not yet been adequately addressed by the federal Government in a manner consistent with the provisions of the drug control Conventions.”  Id. at 37.  Thus, as far as the INCB is concerned, the federal government should do more to ensure compliance with the international treaties.

It is worth noting that the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 recognizes the use of cannabis for medical and scientific purposes.  However, as noted by the INCB, the international treaty sets out specific requirements for establishment, administration, and monitoring of medical marijuana programs as stated in articles 23, 28 and 30.  Id. ¶ 169, at 23-24.  The INCB does not believe that many existing programs in the U.S. and in other countries comply with these restrictions.  Id. ¶ 374, at 49.  Moreover, use of cannabis for recreational use, such as is authorized in the Netherlands and some U.S. state initiatives, e.g., Colorado, would never be sanctioned under the international treaties.

In summarizing the INCB report at todays’ plenary session, INCB President Raymond Yans reiterated his concern about cannabis use in some countries, including the United States.  For its part, the U.S. delegation responded to Mr. Yans’ statements asserting that:  the U.S. remains committed to upholding the international treaties, the U.S. federal government will monitor the cannabis initiatives in Colorado and Washington and make sure they do not lead to new threats, and is committed to maintaining communication with INCB and reduce misunderstandings.

The U.S. continues to be an ardent supporter of the international drug control treaties and an aggressive and vocal voice against drug abuse.  However, the state marijuana initiatives, especially those authorizing recreational use, may affect the U.S.’ traditional “high road” approach at least in regard to marijuana use – pun intended.

Stay tuned for more news from the 2014 CND.