The Impact of the Single Convention Treaty on Cannabis Legalization

Many cannabis patients and businesses believe that the most significant hurdles standing in the way of marijuana legalization are policy and legislature. We vote to simply deschedule the plant and allow states to make their own decisions on how to enact policy and regulate cannabis, right? While this is true, the landscape is a bit trickier due to an international treaty known as the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

The treaty is also known as the Single Convention, 1961 Convention, or simple C61. We’re going to delve into the history of the Single Convention, its key provisions and restrictions, global implications, and the challenges it poses to the global legalization of cannabis.

Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961

C61 was a groundbreaking step in international drug control, as it aimed to address the complex issue of drug abuse and trafficking at a global level. The treaty was conceived during a time when concerns about drug addiction and the consequences of drug use were on the rise. Its primary objective was to establish a foundation for international cooperation in monitoring and controlling the cultivation, production, and distribution of drugs deemed harmful and addictive.

History of the 1961 Convention

The Single Convention was drafted by the second United Nations Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld (Sweden). It was adopted by the United Nations in 1961 and “entered into force” in 1964. The primary objective of the international treaty was to coordinate countries around the world to collaboratively intervene and control the production, trade, and use of narcotic drugs. C61 included cannabis depending on how it was being used.

Key Provisions and Restrictions

Under the convention, member states are required to adopt strict regulations on the cultivation, production, distribution, and use of cannabis. This includes criminalizing its possession and supply chain for non-medical purposes. Additionally, the convention prohibits the import and export of cannabis except for medical and scientific purposes authorized by the government.

The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs includes several key provisions related to cannabis. It categorizes drugs into four schedules based on their medical uses and potential for abuse. Cannabis originally fell under both Schedule I and Schedule IV. The fourth classification is the most restrictive category under the Single Convention of 1961. At first glance, scheduling cannabis under two schedules doesn’t appear to make any sense. We’re going to try to explain how the treaty schedules are laid out.

US Drug Schedules vs. C61 Drug Schedules

When a substance is listed on a drug schedule, it’s important to ask yourself, “Under whose Schedule?” For example, heroin is listed as a Schedule I drug in the United States. This means the DEA considers heroin to have no medical value and is extremely dangerous and addictive. In contrast, heroin is classified as a Schedule II drug in the UK, which allows it to be prescribed to patients. The drug Schedules between the UK and the United States are similar with varying differences, however, the Single Convention Schedule is quite different.

You’re likely familiar with the US drug Schedule’s classification methodology. Schedules I and II are deemed the most dangerous to society, while Schedules III-V are listed as less addictive and with a reduced chance of causing harm. Of note, this method of classification is similar in the United Kingdom.

Next, let’s take a look at how Scheduling works under the Single Convention of 1961.

Scheduling Cannabis Under C61

As we’ve mentioned, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs is an international treaty that seeks to unite all nations against highly addictive drugs that can cause harm to social structures due to high occurrences of dependence and overdose. As a result of political rail-roading, cannabis ended up under the most dangerous schedule combination (Schedules I and IV).

Here is a brief explanation of the Single Convention’s Schedules and how they work:

  • C61 Schedule I – All drugs to be regulated by the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are listed in either Schedule I or Schedule II. The difference is that Schedule II substances are slightly less regulated and can be used (under tight supervision) outside of scientific research purposes. Schedule I drugs may also be assigned to C61 Schedule IV.
  • C61 Schedule II – As mentioned in the convention, C61 Schedule II substances are still considered a controlled drug or narcotic, however, they are more likely to be classified as Schedule III substances due to being considered medicinally viable, less addictive, and unlikely to cause harm to the patient.
  • C61 Schedule III – Preparations (or the substance that contains the controlled drug) are decided to be less likely to inflict harm or have negative effects and are often classified here. You’re likely to see many Schedule II drugs simultaneously listed as Schedule 3 under the treaty.
  • C61 Schedule IV – C61 Schedule I drugs that are decided to have little redeeming value or medical uses and are likely to result in abuse or harm are categorized under this classification. Although similar to a Schedule I drug designation in the United States, the treaty allows exceptions if a substance can be proven to have “substantial therapeutic advantages.”

Breaking it down, all controlled substances and narcotics must be placed in C61 Schedule I or II, Schedule I being the most severe. Once the drugs are all placed into one of these two categories, then they can receive an accompanying Schedule III or IV. Schedule III is seen as having very little chance for abuse by the patient. Schedule IV is deemed very addictive and liable to cause harm.

Global Implications of the Single Convention

The Single Convention has had far-reaching implications for cannabis legalization worldwide. The treaty establishes a framework that member states are expected to adhere to, which has contributed to the global prohibitionist stance on cannabis. Many countries have implemented strict cannabis laws to comply with the convention, leading to the criminalization of cannabis and its users.

The convention also creates significant barriers to cannabis research and hinders the exploration of its medical potential. The strict regulations imposed by the Single Convention have made it challenging for researchers to obtain and study cannabis. This in turn has led to a lack of scientific evidence and understanding of its therapeutic benefits. It’s a bit of the “chicken and the egg” dilemma.

United Nations, New York
The Single Convention was voted on and signed in 1961 and 1971 at the UN headquarters in New York. The treaty’s purpose is to ensure narcotic drugs are available to patients who need them while averting the illegal production and distribution of substances controlled within the four Schedules of the convention.

Although not a perfect system and in need of reform, the treaty has helped nations ban together against drugs with a high potential for abuse and overdose.

Challenges to Cannabis Legalization

The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs has posed numerous challenges to the legalization of cannabis. The treaty’s strict regulations and categorization of cannabis as a Schedule I and IV (C61) substance have influenced the development of national drug policies, making it difficult for countries to consider alternative approaches, such as decriminalization or legalization.

Furthermore, the convention’s emphasis on the prohibitionist approach has perpetuated the stigma surrounding cannabis, hindering the shift in public perception and acceptance of its therapeutic applications. The fear of violating international drug control treaties has deterred countries from taking steps towards legalization, despite changing attitudes and growing evidence of cannabis’s medical and economic benefits.

Effects of the Single Convention on Cannabis Research

The strict regulations imposed by the treaty have created barriers to conducting scientific studies on the therapeutic potential of cannabis. Researchers often face bureaucratic hurdles and challenges in obtaining the necessary approvals and licenses to conduct research involving cannabis, limiting the availability of scientific evidence supporting its medical use.

Additionally, the stigma and legal restrictions surrounding cannabis have limited patient access to medical cannabis treatment. Many countries have been hesitant to legalize medical cannabis due to concerns about violating the provisions of the Single Convention. As a result, patients who could potentially benefit from medical cannabis may struggle to obtain legal access to it.

Cannabis is Removed From Schedule IV (C61)

In a bit of good news, the Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) made several recommendations on behalf of the World Health Organization in 2018. The primary recommendation was to remove cannabis and its resins from the extensively regulated Schedule IV. In 2020, the United Nations Commission for Narcotic Drugs held a vote and removed cannabis from its international Schedule IV classification.

Cannabis is still considered a highly regulated drug under the Single Convention; however, it now receives recognition as a legitimate, medicinal option for patients through its reclassification. It’s a big step in the right direction, however as long as it remains listed in the C61 treaty, legalizing adult-use cannabis products remains a challenge.

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