UN Cries Fowl Over Canberra’s Legal Cannabis Law

ACT marijuana law breaches International treaty, UN says

As if the matter couldn’t get more confusing, the United Nations (UN) has joined the argument, chipping in on the Australian Capital Territory’s (ACT) new legal cannabis law. The UN’s International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) has invoked the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs in a letter to the federal government, reminding Australia of her obligations to maintain a cannabis ban as a party to that treaty. The UN points to the ACT’s move to partially legalise personal cannabis as a violation of that treaty.

UN’s International Narcotics Control Board letter reminding Australia of her obligations under the 1964 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Source

The ACT passed cannabis legislation in late September, legalising the drug for personal use for those aged 18 years and over. The legislation was actually quite limited in what it allows:

  • Possess 50 grams or less of cannabis
  • Cultivate up to 2 plants per person (4 plants per household)
  • No marijuana around children
  • No cannabis cultivation in community gardens

So how could such a limited cannabis legalisation law garner the unwanted attention of the UN, especially amid the many other countries with broader laws — i.e. Uruguay, Canada, and the 11 states in the United States that have legalised recreational cannabis.

The ACT’s response

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr’s response essentially asks the same question. Barr points out that, “Canada, Colorado and California have cannabis legalisation laws that are much more expansive than the laws passed by the ACT Legislative Assembly last month.” The minister then suggests that the UN should point its attention to those places, instead of the ACT. 

The UN, however, continues to maintain the position that the 1964 treaty is binding on Australia. Professor Richard Mattick, a UN INCB member, stated that authorising any “non-medical” cannabis use is not allowed, and that whether or not the amount authorised for recreational use is small is irrelevant to that fact. 

But none of this actually explains why the UN has chosen to complain about the ACT’s legal cannabis measures while staying silent over the years as other nations legalise far broader recreatoinal marijuana use.

Perhaps the Australian government’s open disagreement with the ACT has emboldened the UN

Cannabis is legal for medical use in over 33 states in the United States (US), along with the Washington, D.C. Eleven of those states have legalised the drug for recreational use, and more are expected to join that list. However, the US government has refrained from a public outcry against those states that have legalised cannabis for recreational use since Colorado and Washington became the first states to do so back in 2012. Instead, in 2013, the Obama administration actually publicised the federal government’s policy to refrain from interfering with the states’ cannabis laws, rather than get into a public spat with those states about how their laws are against federal law. 

Fast forward to Canada’s recreational cannabis law last year, and the same is true. The country moved forward with the law as a unit, without airing their disagreements so openly. Uruguay was the first to pass a federal recreational cannabis law, and the same was true there. 

South Africa’s high court also legalised cannabis possession last year. Other nations are considering the same, with Mexico drafting legislation to do just that very soon and Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s party) changing its stance on recreational cannabis to suggest a marijuana law might soon surface.

In Australia, however, this hasn’t been the case — the disagreements between federal government officials and ACT officials over the ACT’s legal cannabis legislation has been entirely too public. Greg Hunt, the federal health minister, has warned ACT residents about the new law, and has publicly declared it to be against the UN’s 1964 treaty.

Hunt is not alone in his admonishments; other ministers have also criticised the ACT, even referring to the legislation as “crazy”. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has called the ACT’s law “dangerous”. Christian Porter, the federal Attorney General, calls the ACT’s move “a very bad idea” and a “social crusade”. The Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, actually suggests that the ACT officials were “…probably spending too much time smoking hooch (sic) themselves, then wanting to legalise the stuff.”

What makes the public bickering worse is the disrespectful tone being used. The federal government’s disagreement so far has been voiced through some very impolite choice of words, and this only served to open the door to outside parties feeling emboldened enough to comment. 

Perhaps, as a result, the UN saw a crack in Australia’s domestic issues — the public disagreement between the federal government and the ACT — and used it as an opportunity to step in and widen that crack.

Meanwhile, support for cannabis legalisation continues to increase

Despite the federal government’s antics so far, Australians’ support for cannabis legalisation continues to increase. A recent Roy Morgan research saw a 9% point swing upwards for recreational cannabis support over the past four years, and 9% point swing downwards for the opposition. 

Despite those who oppose cannabis legalisation still having more numbers (49%) than those who support it (42%), this is a major, significant swing that confirms the trend of increasing cannabis support. Perhaps attacking the ACT’s laws may not be so popular after all.

Final words

So far, the ACT’s legal cannabis law may have garnered too much attention — the wrong kind of attention. The law is scheduled to take effect on January 31, 2020, and there’s a question as to whether it’ll even make it that far.

However, cannabis is becoming more accepted by Australians throughout the country. This might make overturning the ACT’s law an unpopular move. So far, despite some federal officials publicly opposing the law, the federal government hasn’t taken a solid stance as to whether or not a challenge to its legality is expected. Perhaps that indecision speaks volumes.

Published by Neil

Neil believes Cannabis has medical benefits and should be prescribed by a Doctor. This site aims to provide accurate information on the science and legality of Cannabis so you can make informed decisions.

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