Canada faces choice on international drug treaties over legalized pot

As Canada moves forward with its plan to legalize marijuana, government officials have at least one international conundrum to sort out too: what to do about the global treaties Canada has signed that prohibit making pot legal?

Legalizing pot will violate international treaties. What should Canada do?

Canada's legalization of pot will violate three international treaties. There is an easy way and a hard way to address that problem (Jim Young/Reuters)

As Canada moves forward with its plan to legalize marijuana, government officials have at least one international conundrum to sort out: what to do about the global treaties Canada has signed that prohibit making pot legal?

A senior government official said there are essentially two options available.

On the one hand, Canada could take a "principled stand" in favour of the international legalization of pot.

The other, quieter approach, would be to withdraw from the treaties and attempt to re-enter with a special exemption for legalized marijuana.

It's the second option, causing the "least international turbulence," that the federal government favours, said the source.

But at least one Canadian researcher believes that would be a missed opportunity for Canada.

Steven Hoffman, a professor at the University of Ottawa, is co-author of a paper that identified two treaties Canada's new pot policy is expected to violate:

  • 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
  • 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances

Hoffman said there is precedent for the quieter option.

In Bolivia, there is a traditional practice of chewing coca leaf, the raw ingredient for cocaine, which the 1961 convention considers a narcotic. In 2012, Bolivia withdrew from the UN treaty. The next year, other member states allowed Bolivia to re-accede with a reservation for chewing coca.

Is Hoffman surprised Canada would consider a similar approach?

"No. The quieter approach is probably the easier approach," he said in an interview with CBC News.

Treatment of drug addicts

However, Hoffman would like to see Canada push for change in the way drug addicts are treated by international treaties, which require possession and use of narcotics to be criminal offences.

"Canada would be making a huge difference if we could even just nudge the rest of the world towards treating addicts like human beings in need of medical assistance rather than criminals in need of punishment and imprisonment."

He notes, though, that Canada "would need to devote a lot of global political capital to this issue" and is likely more preoccupied with using that capital on issues such as climate change.

Still, Hoffman thinks the most important key is that Canada actually make the move to withdraw and re-accede, rather than simply violate the treaties. He argues that kind of disregard for international law would set a troubling example.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story said Canada's proposed new pot policy could violate three international treaties. In fact, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances does not include marijuana.
    Oct 03, 2016 8:50 AM ET

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