The video interview with INCB President 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 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. The moves in the US states of Washington and Colorado, as well as imminent change in Uruguay, to put in place legally regulated production and availability of cannabis for non-medical use is a particular challenge. Whilst 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 Attorney General’s memo that makes clear they 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 apparent disconnect from political realities, is also evident in Yans’ apparent threat of calling for ‘sanctions’ by the 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 amongst 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 OAS report that ‘Sooner or later decisions in this area will need to be taken’ on the question of cannabis decriminalisation/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 risk becoming more isolated and redundant.
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