As the number of countries considering legal cannabis continues to rise, the United Nations’ International Narcotics Control Board, tasked with implementing global drug control treaties, is paying much closer attention to outcomes.
For the first time, the INCB’s annual report, released on Thursday, includes a chapter devoted to legalization, or, more specifically, to an “analysis of the trend to legalize the non-medical use of cannabis.”
“The number of states having legalized such cannabis use is still relatively small but a number of governments are considering pursuing policies in this direction in the future,” said INCB President Jagjit Pavadia during a press briefing Thursday.
Pavadia emphasized that “this contravenes the drug control conventions which require that drug use be limited to medical and scientific purposes,” and urged leaders in countries to instead consider measures that fall within the conventions, such as decriminalization.
Under the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, cannabis is classified as “highly addictive and liable to abuse,” which is similar to its placement in Schedule I of the U.S. Controlled Substances Act. It is this very placement that President Joe Biden called on his administration in October to reconsider.
“We classify marijuana at the same level as heroin – and more serious than fentanyl. It makes no sense,” Biden said at the time, adding that he asked Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Attorney General Merrick Garland “to initiate the process of reviewing how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.”
Along with the release of its annual report, the INCB took the unprecedented move of issuing a press release “warning” that legalization “seems to result in higher consumption and a lower perception of risk, especially among young people.” The release goes on to detail other concerns around, for example, impaired driving.
However, the language in the report is more measured than that of the press release on each of these concerns. On youth use, for example, the report notes more specifically that “some studies suggest that the prevalence of use among youth may have increased, while other studies suggest that prevalence did not change or may have even declined after legalization.”
On impaired driving, the release notes that “statistical evidence from Colorado (United States) shows that fatal traffic accidents with drivers under the influence of cannabis nearly doubled from 2013 to 2020.” The same point in the report is written as: “In Colorado, in 2020, the percentage of drivers who tested positive for cannabis in all traffic fatalities was nearly twice as high as in 2013.”
There is a significant difference here: the language in the release (“under the influence”) suggests impairment, while the report notes only a positive test. It is well-established that a positive test does not mean that someone is impaired. For example, a report from the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, which includes similar data, notes with an asterisk that “the detection of any cannabinoid in the blood is not an indicator of impairment but only indicates the presence in the system. Detection of Delta-9 THC, one of the primary psychoactive metabolites of marijuana, may be an indicator of impairment.”
Ultimately, both the release and the report note limitations when it comes to available data on cannabis.
“A simple pre/post design does not necessarily prove a strong causal relationship between the law, its implementation and statistical results. Some increases may be due to changes in reporting or measurement or to completely different factors,” the report reads.
“For example,” it continues, “it is obvious that there is a greater willingness on the part of individuals to report the use of cannabis if that use is not illegal – and therefore a higher reported rate of use after legalization does not necessarily indicate that actual prevalence has increased. Likewise, increases in the number of emergency visits and hospitalizations might be due to the greater awareness of doctors, who, after the policy change, are more likely to screen or confirm acute cannabis intoxication using urinalysis.”
Despite this, the report concludes that “in general terms, one can ascertain that the legalizing jurisdictions did not reach the goals they had pursued through legalization.”
Setting aside the INCB’s contradictory approach to engaging with cannabis at a deeper level, the fact that it has chosen to do so is indicative of a new global reality: just a summary overview of the jurisdictions around the world considering or implementing cannabis reforms spans two pages.
As stated in the report’s conclusion, “the trend towards legalization must be addressed.”