Sunday, April 25, 2010

UNODC censored cannabis decriminalisation page returns with drastic revisions

Back in February This blog reported on an interesting page stumbled across on the UN Office of Drugs and Crime's website Youthnet pages. Coming from one of the bastions of prohibition this was an almost alarmingly sensible page about cannabis use, risks and laws. The section on laws was particularly striking as it was an unambiguous critique of the failed enforcement approach to managing cannabis risks, and made a rational and eloquent argument for the decriminalisation of the possession and use of cannabis.

Disappointingly, just two days after we blogged about it, the entire section on cannabis law reform disappeared from the page, despite having sat unbothered (and, one assumes, unread) since 2007 (the deletion blogged here). This seemed a little churlish in light of the fact that numerous member states have already adopted the approaches suggested in the text, for the very reasons it outlined so clearly - indeed Canada is given as a case study. Somewhere within the UNODC machinary a different - more hard-line old-school prohibtionist view clearly held sway, one that is curiously intolerant of any dissent from the most punitive interpretations of the conventions. They made sure the offending passage was removed, in effect, censored.

Even this was rather fumbled, with a reference to the now deleted section four on cannabis laws remaining in the opening paragraph, until it was spotted by a Transform blog commenter, at which point it too disappeared the following day.

Now, however, the contentious section four on cannabis laws has reappeared but, in a rather troubling development, it bears no resemblance to its previous incarnation. In a rather audacious bit of textual revisionism, all discussion of the merits of decriminalisation have been excised (references, authors, and all), with a call for proportionality in sentencing and alternatives to custody, the only vague nods in the direction of reform. Instead we now have an INCB-style argument for maintaining the criminal status of users, along with some stern warnings about the 'multiple negative health and social consequences' of cannabis use (that notably doesn't sit easily, in its tone or content, with the more measured risk analysis in the preceding three sections).

Thanks to the excellent Internet Archive Wayback Machine we can now bring you all three versions of the page:

Calls to UNODC have failed to produce an account of why the decision was made (any explanation would still be welcome).

In many respects this episode is somewhat trivial, but it does point to something more important.What are they so concerned about that they should feel the need to resort to this sort of censorship and revisionism? It certainly isn't the Transform blog, so one can only assume it is born of a more fundamental concern. Decriminalisation, despite the fact that it is happening across the world, from the US and Canada, South and Central America, Australia, Israel, and much of mainland Europe, is a direct challenge to the fundamental punitive tenets of prohibition, at least in the quasi-religious formulation of some key hardline voices. For them, evidently, this means that dissent (even rational discussion or evaluations of alternative approaches) is a heresy that must be stifled. And if that means rather lame Orwellian rewriting of obscure pages of official websites, so be it.

The revised text follows, but first here is the original text of section 4 'The effect of the cannabis laws' as it read before we blogged about it. The text considered too dangerous for delicate UNODC web readers (that didn't make the revised version) is highlighted in red.

Cannabis Series - Part 4
The effect of cannabis laws

A number of countries are debating their marijuana laws, in most cases, trying to decide whether the penalties for possessing small amounts of cannabis should be reduced. Some advocate legalization of cannabis, that is, making it available through controlled, legal sources, as are tobacco and alcohol. However, most policymakers see that option as a huge social experiment, with outcomes that are difficult to predict. Others advocate that possessing personal amounts of cannabis should no longer be viewed as a criminal offence and penalties should be reduced. This is because, even though marijuana is not a harmless drug, an increasing number of health officials, researchers and politicians in these countries view the penalty to be out of proportion to the potential harm of using cannabis. The following are some of the arguments being made for reducing the penalties so that possession of small amounts of cannabis is no longer a criminal offence:

A criminal record is a serious matter
A criminal record labels a person caught with possessing small amounts of cannabis as a criminal and severely limits their ability to find employment, professional certification and to travel to other countries. Criminalizing a behaviour has a number of effects: it may make it more attractive to some youth, and it may result in the further marginalization of some youth, making it more difficult to help them.

Reducing the severity of the penalty doesn't seem to lead to increased use
Cannabis use (particularly heavy use in combination with other substances) poses risks, so it is important that any change not result in increased use. Based on the experiences of those countries or states that have reduced their penalties, various reviews agree that there is no indication that this will happen. For example, the 11 US states that decriminalized marijuana possession in the 1970s did not see increases in use beyond that experienced by other states; neither did the Australian states that have introduced a civil offence model over the past decade.

Laws don't seem to matter one way or another to young people
Over the past 10 years in most Western countries, the use of cannabis by young people has increased and attitudes have generally grown more tolerant toward the drug, with no difference between countries that had stiff or reduced penalties. For example in the Netherlands, where cannabis use is not a criminal offence, usage rates are lower than in the US, which has some of the toughest cannabis laws in the Western world. Young people who do not use cannabis generally say that their decision is based on health concerns or that they are just not interested. They aren't as likely to mention the laws as being a factor in their decision. In fact, research with teenage students suggests that the criminalization of cannabis and the stigmatization of cannabis use as a dangerous and forbidden activity makes it even more attractive to some.

Resources could be better placed elsewhere
Cannabis offences can take one or two officers off the street for up to several hours + their time for court appearances + tying up other court resources. These $ could have more impact put into apprehending producers and traffickers, or directed at prevention, education and treatment. Although the law is an important means of controlling behaviour, accurate and balanced information and education should be seen as the primary means to enable young people to make informed choices about their drug use. For example, laws cannot distinguish between levels of use, whereas educators can help young people by providing clearer messages (for example, all drug use contains some risk - heavy use can result in serious problems for young people, while light, infrequent cannabis use poses fewer risks).

A case example
In Canada police are often reluctant to apply the penalties for possessing small amounts of cannabis, not only because of the work involved, but also because they do not want to saddle a young person with a criminal record. When a young person is found in possession of small amounts of cannabis in Canada, the typical police response is some combination of taking the drug, detaining the person in the police car or station, giving them a warning and letting them go. As a result, young people feel that the police do not take the laws very seriously; some also feel that they are applied unevenly depending on a person's ethnicity, the clothing they are wearing, etc.

One of the options being considered is to give the person a ticket, like a traffic ticket. Even though this would seem like a softer approach, it would in fact represent a greater penalty than many young people currently experience. And if the police "widen the net" (that is, become more active in apprehending youth) as apparently occurred in Australia when penalties were reduced, it would actually mean that young people would be more likely to be penalized.

Another possible outcome is that parents are more likely to be involved when their child is fined than if they are just "slapped on the wrist" and let go, providing an opportunity for parent/child discussion on the issue.

Also, creating a reduced penalty option reduces the deviance attached to the behaviour, which does lead to a climate more open to actual health promotion messages (e.g., that using around driving and sexual situations, or using to the point of intoxication, or using in combination with other substances or medications, or while involved in physical or cognitive activity can be harmful).


Fischer, B, Albanes, R, and Amitay, O. "Marijuana, Juveniles and the Police: What high school students believe about detection and enforcement", Canadian Journal of Criminology, Vol 40(4): 401-420, 1998.
Gary Roberts, Senior Associate Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse

Here's how it reads now, the surviving text from the original above version above highlighted in red, the rest being entirely new:

Cannabis Series - Part 4
Cannabis laws

A number of countries are debating their marijuana laws, in some cases deciding to transform the penalties from criminal to administrative charges or to commute criminal justice sanctions in education or treatment interventions.

The possession, cultivation and purchase of cannabis are criminal offences in the provisions of the International Treaties. Currently, the international community treats cannabis as a serious drug, in the category "Schedule I," since its use is associated with multiple negative health and social consequences. Cannabis use poses serious health risks, particularly for young people, affecting especially psychosocial development and mental health. In addition, cannabis has been found to be involved in other increased risk, such as for lung cancer or car accidents. Keeping cannabis illegal can have the effect of reducing use, since availability, access, advertising, and promotion (unlike alcohol or tobacco) are restricted in a control system.

Although cannabis remains illicit and should not be underestimated with respect to its risks for health and behavioural disorders, we also understand that overly harsh sentences for cannabis users can be counterproductive. To this purpose, the Conventions repeatedly underline the need for early identification, treatment, education, after-care, rehabilitation and social reintegration for drug users. Article 38 of the Single Convention (1961) states that "the Parties shall give special attention to and take all practicable measures for the prevention of abuse of drugs and for the early identification, treatment, education, after-care, rehabilitation and social reintegration of the persons involved", underlining the crucial role of health and social interventions. Moreover, Article 36 b states that "abusers shall undergo measures of treatment, education, after-care, rehabilitation and social reintegration". In its 2007 report, the International Narcotics Control Board 2007 (EN/INCB/2007/1), when discussing the principle of proportionality highlighting that "with offences involving the possession, purchase or cultivation of illicit drugs for the offender's personal use, the measures can be applied as complete alternatives to conviction and punishment".

While the possession, cultivation and purchase of illicit drugs remain offences, drug users and drug dependent people should be offered education, treatment, and/or innovative criminal justice interventions (such as drug courts, or swift and certain sanctions) when appropriate, as alternatives to incarceration.

Examples of sources on health risks

Hall W, Degenhardt L (2009), Adverse health effects of non-medical cannabis use, Lancet, 2009 Oct 17, 374(9698), 1383-91.

Gerra G, Zaimovic A, Gerra ML, Ciccocioppo R, Cippitelli A, Serpelloni G, Somaini L (2010), "Pharmacology and toxicology of cannabis derivatives and endocannabinoid agonists", Recent Pat CNS Drug Discov, 2010 Jan, 5(1):46-52.

Documents quoted

The three International Drug Conventions
The INCB Report 2007


Derek said...

Nice work there. This looks like a sign of desperation in the face of impending change, indeed, could it be anything else?

matthew.roberts said...

While the revised text isn't quite a call to lock up users and throw away the key, the change from a more progressive (in the most positive sense), evidence-based commentary is thoroughly depressing. While it is tempting to shrug and accept that's the way these things work, we shouldn't forget that we, i.e. global taxpayers, fund the UN. In this particular case they are taking money from us in order to very carefully and very deliberately conceal the truth from us.

J D Gallagher said...

Simply frightening, one wonders if the UNODC is in league with the drug cartells as it is in the interests of these criminals that so called illicit drugs are illegal, is Antonio Maria Costa receiving kick-backs from El Chapo and Co (facetious remark)? Or are law enforcement agencies afraid they might lose billions in funding?

Don said...

Article 9, paragraph 4 of the "single convention of 1961" requires signing countries to not only restrict availability of cannabis to amounts needed for legitimate scientific and medical research but to ENSURE the supply of an amount sufficient to meet the needs of that research.
Canada and the USA have abrogated their responsiblity to the terms of the convention, by failing to ensure such a required supply, making it impossible to conduct research and have failed their citizens right to such properly conducted and documented research for a variety of medical and legal reasons.

Such a violation goes to the heart of the issue and the only recourse is a class action lawsuit filed in "the Hague - Netherlands", naming the UNODC, it's board members, it's current president Antonio Costa, the United States Federal Government, abd the government of Canada as co-conspirators in a deliberate strategy aimed at subverting the will and rights of citizens around the world.

Watch for a suit to be filed soon.

Don said...


There is no doubt about where UNODCs money come from.

In a speech delivered 3-4 March, 2005, at the GLOBAL PARTNERS SYMPOSIUM, President Antonio Costa said:
"We know our objectives are ambitious. We know the challenges to development are formidable. But we cannot give up or turn back. Too many people in Africa, Asia, Central and South America are still waiting for their fair share of prosperity. I know that Novartis-Sandoz understand this and are ready to deliver on
the commitment to good governance in tangible ways.
A few years ago, the CEO of a well-established company told me, and this is a quote, “Corporate Social
Responsibility is our business decision, not because it is a nice thing to do, or because governments or consumers are forcing us to do so, but because it is good for business”. Certainly this is true, Corporate
Social Responsibility means a healthier bottom line."

His concern was and remains to help the Pharma giants Sandoz and Novartis attain a healthy bottom line.
see the speech at
United Nations Conspiracy

evilprot0n said...

Wow, I'm anxious about what might happen next!