INCB President comments on cannabis policy reform in Washington and Colorado

This blog post originally appeared on the IDPC website.

The video interview with the President of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), Raymond Yans, posted on 12 October 2013, is a relatively rare public insight into the thinking of the INCB on cannabis policy reform at a time of considerable internal UN turmoil on the question. The reality is that multiple jurisdictions are now discussing, developing or actually implementing cannabis law reforms that run against the prohibitionist spirit of the UN drug conventions. This is undoubtedly the source of considerable tension for the INCB, which has historically positioned itself as the guardian of the treaties' prohibitionist tenets. 

Uruguay and the US states of Washington and Colorado are putting in place frameworks to legally regulate the production and availability of cannabis for non-medical use, posing a stark challenge to these tenets. While the more widespread decriminalisation approaches to personal possession and use have been criticised by the INCB, they are at least arguably permissible within the letter of the conventions. The legalisation/regulation moves, however, cross a legal line in the sand by unambiguously breaching the treaties, and as such represent a comprehensive break in the prohibitionist consensus that the INCB has helped maintain for over half a century.

The frustrations at this development are evident in Yans' declaration of the need to ‘stop this nonsense’ – a statement that seems oblivious to the fact that the US state measures being discussed were democratically mandated (and have now been effectively green-lighted by the federal government, with the US Deputy Attorney General issuing a memo making clear that Washington and Colorado's measures will be tolerated under certain conditions). For the INCB, the fact that the reforms are taking place is no doubt particularly frustrating as the US has long been a political and ideological advocate for the INCB’s historical positioning. The disconnect from political realities is also evident in Yans' apparent threat of calling for 'sanctions' by the UN General Assembly against the US.

The opaque nature of INCB deliberations mean it is unclear the extent to which Yans' statements represent the thinking of the rest of the Board, although there are indications that not all Board members share his enthusiasm for the stubborn Canute-like resistance to change. Elsewhere in the UN system, political observers report a growing resignation among high-level staff to the need for some changes to be allowed to accommodate the growing demand for or actual reforms to cannabis policy. This sentiment was echoed in the clear statement made in the recent report by the Organization of American States, which concluded that "Sooner or later decisions in this area will need to be taken" on the question of cannabis decriminalisation or regulation. It seems clear that the INCB will need to take some decisions in this area as well, in recognition of the growing demand for cannabis policy reform – or otherwise risk becoming more isolated and redundant.