On 17th October, it became legal to consume cannabis for non-medical purposes in the jurisdiction of Canada.

The INCB, perhaps unsurprisingly, is not pleased at this development. On its website, we learn that ‘the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) reiterates its regret at the adoption of this measure by the Government of Canada.’

It is true that the drug control conventions have two basic objectives: that of preventing the non-medical use of controlled drugs, and that of ensuring access to controlled drugs for medical and scientific purposes. The failure of the latter constitutes the real ‘world drug problem’.

If we look at the situation on drug control grounds alone, the INCB is right in its criticism of Canada. However, even then the INCB is incorrect to say, as it does, that ‘the Government of Canada has contributed to weakening the international legal drug control framework and undermining the rules-based international order’. It is notable that it did not attempt the same level of criticism in relation to the United States, in several states of which non-medical cannabis use is legal.

It is also incorrect to be ‘deeply concerned about the public health impact of these policy choices on the health and welfare of Canadians, particularly youth.’ The major impact on the health of Canadians and other citizens stems, in fact, from the illegality of drugs rather than the drugs themselves.

But there is a broader issue, located in the framing of drug control.

If we examine this issue within the wider context of the goals of the United Nations, the Board’s position is much less convincing. The main objectives of the UN are, according to the UN Charter, the organisation’s founding document: to maintain peace and security; to develop relations between nations; to foster economic, social and cultural development; to provide a forum for bringing countries together around these issues. The other foundational text of the UN is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This articulates the inalienable rights of human beings.

Drug control is very often in profound conflict with these objectives, especially those of human rights. The drug control organs have historically existed in what has been termed a parallel universe from human rights. Removing the criminal law from the use of drugs and replacing it with public health and human rights understandings can only benefit the health of global citizens. The Board and the other UN drug control organs should use their expertise to educate states on this complex set of issues.