International Treaties on Cannabis, the Single Convention, UK Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, 1988 Vienna Convention against the Illicit Traffic of Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, Drug Trafficking Offences Act


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A favourite argument used by the UK and other Governments is that national laws and policies are governed by international opinions and treaties; they tend to choose which opinions they listen to on the basis of which opinions they agree with - such is the nature of politicians - challenging the rulings of European Courts when considered not to be in the interest of the country (British Beef Bans, banning of razor wire around prisons etc).

The treaty which concern us, as far as cannabis is concerned, and the treaty upon which the UK Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is based, is the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961. The principle of this treaty is that the possession, use, trade in, distribution, import, export, manufacture and production of drugs is exclusively limited to medical and scientific purposes.

The spirit of the treaty was to completely eradicate the cultivation and use of cannabis within thirty years; many consider it fortunate that this aim was not achieved. This failure applies to all the drugs which are listed in the schedules of the treaty; despite the "War on Drugs" there are more hard drug addicts worldwide than ever before. The measures adopted to eradicate cannabis (as well as the opium poppy and coca leaf) were ones of repression. This was emphasised in the 1988 Vienna Convention against the Illicit Traffic of Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, which provided for international co-operation, extradition and the confiscation of assets; this resulted in the UK the Drug Trafficking Offences Act. The problem with these conventions is, in our opinion is that cannabis has been misrepresented and mis-classified within the treaties.

In the Single Convention cannabis is included in Schedule 1, alongside natural opium and semi-synthetic opium (morphine, heroin), opiates, derivatives of coca (cocaine), pethidine, methadone. Cannabis is also included in Schedule 4, substances deemed to be particularly dangerous and with an extremely limited or no therapeutic value. The main criteria of classification within the 4 schedules is based on medicinal value and use.

In the Vienna Convention cannabis is included in schedule 1, that is drugs causing serious risk to public health, whose therapeutic value is doubtful or nil; other drugs in this schedule include LSD25, and DMT.

Most governments including that of the UK, would be reluctant to withdraw from these treaties. Yet although the treaties prohibit the use of cannabis everywhere, many countries and their police forces turn a blind eye to at least the locals who smoke cannabis, choosing not to prosecute for small amounts - Holland, Spain, Italy, Switzerland and now Germany. Britain, however, using a somewhat random system of cautioning first and even second time offenders in some parts of the country, fine or imprison people for traces elsewhere.

The recent introduction of urine tests for cannabis both inside and outside of Her Majesties Prisons takes this to the ridiculous. One can be punished for having consumed cannabis weeks ago (it stays in the blood that long), possibly even through passive smoking.

Cannabis is mis-classified within these conventions. Rather than destroy the whole agreement there exist Articles to allow for the reclassification of substances within or between the schedules. Article 3 of the UN Single Convention allows the schedules to be amended.

In order to legalise cannabis we must persuade the various parties to these international agreements to consider correcting this misrepresentation of cannabis, recognise that cannabis has many medicinal and therapeutic properties, and to address the situation and remove cannabis from the schedules


Source: Appendix A, The THC Club Protocols

The Obligations of the UK Government under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961.There is an 'urban myth' propagated by spinned-out Government Ministers, ignorant drug policy 'experts' and lazy journalists, that Britain's supposed 'obligations' under the Single Convention prevents the government from legalising cannabis (or other drugs).

In fact the Single Convention places no obligation on any signatory to make possession, production or distribution of any drug for personal use a criminal offense. This has always been accepted as at least a permissible interpretation by the United Nations itself, as the official commentary on the Convention makes clear. ('Commentary on the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs', 1961, United Nations, New York, 1973.)

The working papers of the Shafer Commission contain a detailed discussion of this point, reaching the conclusion that: "although a country may decide that possession for personal use should be a punishable offence, there is nothing in the Convention which requires it to do so". (Marihuana: Signal of Misunderstanding: The Shafer Report, Appendix, Vol. 1,Technical Papers, p 533.)

The most authoritative interpretation is that of Professor Adolph Lande, who as Deputy Executive Secretary of the Plenipotentiary Conference, acted as chief draftsman of the Convention: "The terms 'possession' and 'purchase' used in the penal provisions of the Single Convention mean only possession and purchase for the purpose of illicit traffic. Consequently unauthorised possession and acquisition of narcotic drugs for personal consumption need not be treated under the Single Convention either as punishable offenses or as serious offenses". (A. Lande The International Drug Control System in Drug Use in America: Problem in Perspective, Appendix, Technical Papers, Vol. III, p 129.)

The correct interpretation of the penal provisions of the Single Convention is that they deal only with the production and supply of drugs; acts incidental to personal use are not within its scope. It follows that not only possession but cultivation and distribution are required to be punishable only insofar as they are related to commercial trafficking not personal consumption.

1. It is open to the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, acting on the recommendation of the World health Organisation, to delete cannabis from the schedules to the Convention.

2. Cannabis could be removed from the scope of control by an amendment to the Convention proposed by any party and discussed by a special conference called for the purpose by the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. It was with this in mind that the Dutch delegate to the Council (19th April 1978) proposed that the Convention should be amended "so as to enable each party to decide for itself the extent to which cannabis may be allowed for personal use".

3. Any party to the Convention may legally withdraw from it on six months notice. The commonly used argument that for Britain to do this would lead to a breakdown in the international system of control of opiates, or even prevent the UK from obtaining opiates for legitimate use is simply not true. Ireland is not a signatory and they suffer no inconvenience. The reality is the system of control is applied to every country in the world whether it has signed the Convention or not. The International Narcotics Control Board is specifically authorised to do this by Articles 12, 13, 14 and 21 of the Convention.

4. The Vienna Convention of 1969 introduced the procedure of 'selective denunciation', which provides that a country may unilaterally withdraw from part of a treaty to which it is a party on various grounds, including "error of fact" in which the treaty itself and fundamental change of circumstances". (The relevance of these provisions is considered in:

Lienward The International Law of Treaties and US Legalisation of Marijuana, Columbia J Transnet. Law 1971 10(2) 413.)

5. The prohibition on non-medical use of drugs does not extend to cannabis leaves, and the prohibition of cultivation of the cannabis plant does not extend to cultivation for any purpose which does not involve the separation of the flowering and fruiting tops, or the resin, from the rest of the plant. (A Lands The International Drug Control System in Drug Use in America: Problem in Perspective, Appendix, Technical Papers, Vol III, p 129.)


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