Legalizing Marijuana in Canada vs. UN Drug Control Treaties

Posted on Wednesday, April 19, 2017


The Government of Canada is introducing legislation that will legalize, regulate, and restrict access to cannabis. Canada’s current international legal obligations are incompatible with its plans to legalize the use of non-medical marijuana.

How can Canada remain party to UN conventions without either withdrawing or amending them?

In a report released by the University of Ottawa’s Global Health Law Clinic, researchers aim to reconcile Canada’s plan with its international treaty obligations without invoking denunciation or amendment provisions.

Researchers formed a legal pathway for Canada to regulate non-medical cannabis by exploring the following questions: 

1. Can Canada argue that international human rights norms supersede its obligations in the UN International Drug Control conventions, or that access to cannabis itself is a human right?

The team determined that these arguments are not legally sound.

2. Can Canada use an exemption found within two of the conventions that allows deviations from the treaties when constitutionally required?

Researchers concluded that this option is not viable in Canada, considering weak jurisprudential grounds to establish a right to non-medical cannabis use and previous failed attempts to reopen the constitution.

3. Can Canada use the scientific purposes exemption, found in the earliest convention and incorporated into the later conventions, to justify the legalization of non-medical cannabis?

The report recommends that the scientific purposes exemption provides the strongest grounds for Canada to legalize non-medical cannabis without having to withdraw from the UN drug control conventions.

"Canada can launch a national, comprehensive cohort study evaluating the impact of cannabis legalization and claim the treaties' 'scientific purposes' exception. This would allow Canada to have its cannabis cake and eat it too, without violating international law," said Steven J. Hoffman, Director of the Global Strategy Lab and Associate Professor of Law, Medicine and Public & International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

Read the report: Reconciling Canada’s Legalization of Non-Medical Cannabis with the UN Drug Control Treaties

Global Health Law Clinic

The Global Health Law Clinic is an experiential learning opportunity for students to apply their previous studies to real-world global health practice. Students work in teams to provide a United Nations agency, government, or civil society partner with research, analysis and advice on addressing a pressing global health challenge facing them. The report was compiled by:

  • Megan Fultz, Global Health Law Clinic Student Fellow and J.D. Candidate
  • Lisa Page, Global Health Law Clinic Student Fellow and J.D. Candidate
  • Alysha Pannu, Global Health Law Clinic Student Fellow and J.D. Candidate
  • Matthew Quick, Global Health Law Clinic Student Fellow and J.D. Candidate

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