The United Nations (UN) asserts that the United States is not adhering to an international drug treaty as it permits individual states to legalize recreational cannabis use.

The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) of the UN recently published its yearly report on global drug control initiatives. The agency appears to criticize the U.S. for letting states legalize cannabis, arguing that this action breaches the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961.

The 1961 Single Convention is an international agreement that regulates the cultivation, production, and trade of specific drugs, including cannabis, for UN member nations. Signatories to the treaty are expected to enforce laws that strictly control these substances.

The 1961 Single Convention, similar to the Controlled Substances Act in the U.S., classifies hazardous drugs into four schedules and restricts their use to medical and scientific purposes.

Agency Emphasizes Federalism Debate

In its report, the INCB seems to accuse the U.S. of not upholding the treaty. The agency acknowledges that a federalist nation like the U.S. might not exercise the same degree of control over its states as other countries.

The agency writes, "In states with a federal structure, a unique issue may emerge regarding whether the federal government can be held responsible if a federated entity enacts legalization that violates the conventions, while the federal government lacks the authority to force the federated entity to comply with the treaty obligations."

However, the report also emphasizes that a federalist government cannot use its internal distribution of powers as a reason to disregard treaty stipulations. "The internal allocation of powers between various levels of a state cannot be used as a justification for failing to fulfill a treaty," it states.

UN Considers Cannabis Dangerous

The report predominantly adopts an anti-cannabis stance, with the INCB deeming it a hazardous illicit substance that poses significant public health risks.

The INCB report discusses state legalization of cannabis in its opening chapter, titled "Analysis of the trend to legalize non-medical cannabis use." The agency observes that cannabis legalization began in the Americas, but the movement has already extended to Europe and other regions. It also mentions that recent progress in South Africa and Thailand could indicate the trend is reaching Africa and Asia as well.

The report estimates that around 209 million people consumed cannabis in 2020, accounting for only four percent of the global population. However, this figure marks a 23 percent increase over the past decade. Cannabis usage is reportedly most prevalent in North America, Oceania, and West Africa.

The INCB report cautions that THC levels in cannabis products are rising worldwide. In Europe, THC levels reportedly grew by 40 percent between 2010 and 2019. In the U.S., THC levels allegedly increased from 3.96 percent in 1995 to 16.16 percent in 2018.

The agency suggests that this surge in THC levels presents a health risk to users by raising the number of cannabis use disorder cases. Global cannabinoid dependence and withdrawal hospital admissions have reportedly increased more than eight times. The report notes that cannabis is responsible for the majority of drug treatment demands in Africa and characterizes it as "highly addictive and prone to abuse."

Lastly, the report states that escalating THC levels have led to a fourfold increase in cannabis-related psychotic disorder admissions worldwide.

Medical Programs Under Scrutiny

Although the 1961 treaty permits the medicinal utilization of cannabis, the INCB has expressed concerns about the execution of medical cannabis programs in the U.S. states. The report indicates that these programs have been established without properly adhering to the regulatory provisions of the 1961 Single Convention treaty regarding the cultivation of cannabis for medical purposes.

The organization appears particularly worried about home-grown cannabis and homemade cannabis extracts. They argue that self-produced preparations may contain hazardous levels of pesticides and other toxic substances. Additionally, they caution that the absence of information about a product's cannabinoid content could be risky.

Contrary to some evidence, the report also asserts that legalization and the subsequent increase in demand have actually favored drug cartels and criminal groups. It further accuses cannabis producers of attempting to remove limitations and regulations on marijuana to generate commercial profits at the expense of public health.

The agency states, "This has led to the normalization and trivialization of cannabis use and, as a result, to diminished perceptions of harm related to cannabis consumption."

The report underscores that decriminalization policies can be implemented without violating the treaty. It mentions, "The 'decriminalization' approach, as well as the 'depenalization' approach, can be considered in line with the conventions as long as it respects the obligation to restrict drug use to medical and scientific purposes and remains within certain limits set by the conventions."

Potential Threats

The actual threat posed by this report to state-level cannabis programs in the U.S. remains uncertain.

While the report seems to target the U.S., it does not explicitly mention the country by name when discussing the "unique issue" faced by federalist nations.

The report nearly accuses the U.S. of breaching the treaty by permitting states to legalize cannabis. However, countries like Canada, Georgia, Malta, and Uruguay have entirely legalized the drug at the national level – a step the U.S. has not taken – and the UN does not seem to be taking any action against those countries.