Bureaucratic hurdles and an unexpectedly high demand for medical cannabis in Germany have created a bottleneck that’s plagued cannabis patients and producers alike. It would seem as though working with the United States could alleviate some of the pressure, but the federal government in Germany has avoided working with the country’s producers for fear of violating the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
Until Germany can develop a robust cannabis cultivation industry, its patients will continue to receive their medicine sporadically from Canada or the Netherlands. While 18 varieties of cannabis are supposed to be available, patients are lucky to find four strains at their local pharmacy — a significant issue when German doctors are required to prescribe a specific strain for patients. If that strain’s not available, the prescription is worthless.
Once the Israeli government has defined their guidelines for cannabis export, their medical cannabis will find its way into German pharmacies to help alleviate the recent bottlenecks. Israel is expected to develop a cannabis export system in the next couple of years.
Cannabis farmers in the U.S. West Coast, Nevada, Colorado, and Alaska might welcome the opportunity to expand into international markets, and patients in Germany could benefit from the new, highly effective selection of U.S. cannabis strains. But the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs labels cannabis on par with cocaine and opium — therein lies the problem for Germany doing business with U.S. cannabis producers.
The Single Convention on Narcotics and Drugs of 1961 is still the foundation of worldwide drug legislation. It includes the coca, opium poppy, cannabis, the opium plant’s raw materials, opiates, heroin, and some synthetic opioids such as methadone. The Convention on Psychotropic Substances of Feb. 21, 1971 extended the list of controlled substances to include psychotropic substances such as amphetamines, barbiturates, and LSD and came into force on Aug. 16, 1976.
Only the medical use of narcotics for pain relief is excluded from the Convention but has to be enacted in compliance with the measures deemed necessary by the United Nations (UN). Member nations must report their produced, exported, stored, and used narcotics to the Narcotic Control Council.
A State Must Purchase All Medical Cannabis Crops
Article 23 of the Single Convention states:
A Party that permits the cultivation of the opium poppy for the production of opium shall establish, if it has not already done so, and maintain, one or more government agencies (hereafter in this article referred to as the Agency) to carry out the functions required under this article.
Article 23 (2) (d) says: “All cultivators of the opium poppy shall be required to deliver their total crops of opium to the Agency. As soon as possible, but not later than four months after the end of the harvest.”
According to Articles 26 and 28 of the Single Convention, the same control system applies to coca and cannabis. Health Canada is in violation of Article 23, paragraph 2d for allowing producers to sell directly to patients. Unlike the Office of Medical Cannabis (OMC) in the Netherlands, the Canadian agency does not purchase and sell the licensed producers’ crops.
The establishment of such an agency is independent of whether government institutions or licensed private providers take over the cultivation. Such agencies only exist in the few states where opium, coca, and cannabis are grown legally: The Turkish Grain Board (for Opium in Turkey), Health Canada’s Office of Controlled Substances, the National Institute on Drug Abuse in the U.S., the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices (BfArM) in Germany, the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Safety, the Office of Medicinal Cannabis in the Netherlands, the Czech State Agency for Medical Cannabis, and the Medical Cannabis Unit in Israel.
The U.S. government would have to recognize the medical benefits of cannabis and remove the drug from Schedule 1 of the narcotics act before the NIDA could offer medical cannabis for export to the German BfArM.
Ways Around the Single Convention
It is almost impossible for a member of the United Nations to legalize cannabis without coming into conflict with the international community. Uruguay, Bolivia, and Canada have already had to deal with the issue and have each taken different approaches to reconciling new national policy with existing international agreements.
Out and Back In
In 2009, the Bolivian government proposed deleting some provisions regarding the coca leaf, but the proposal was rejected by the other member nations. On June 29, 2011, Bolivia withdrew from the Single Convention through Jan. 1, 2012 and rejoined with an objection to Article 50 on Jan. 10, 2012.
Bolivia stated that it would allow the cultivation, trade, and consumption of coca leaves in its country. Within one year, 15 contracting nations filed an objection, well short of the one-third quorum required to reject Bolivia’s objection. Bolivia was reclassified as a contracting party on Jan. 11, 2013.
Ignore the Issue
Uruguay was reprimanded shortly before the legalization of cannabis by the UN Drug Administration’s International Narcotic Control Board (INCB). The former INCB-president Raymond Yans accused Uruguay’s then-president Jose Mujica of having an “attitude of a pirate” because his government legalized cannabis. Mujica fiercely resisted the allegations repeatedly made against his country and publicly responded to the criticism of the former INCB chairman:
“Tell the old man to stop lying. We can meet whenever he wants in Uruguay. […]. He sits in a comfortable position on the International stage and believes he can tell nonsense.”
Despite the dramatic exchanges, the international community has not sanctioned Uruguay for being the first country in the world to legalize cannabis. Incidentally, a similar complaint was addressed to the United States after the legalization ballots in Colorado and Washington State. In November 2012, Yans stated the legalization of the cultivation and possession of cannabis in Colorado and Washington violated the treaty and asked the U.S. government to restore conformity with the single convention.
Recreational cannabis is legal in eight states and the District of Columbia, and the international community is far from sanctioning the U.S. However, ignoring the treaty also means missing out on access to the international market and the opportunity to take part in international research efforts.
Don’t Comply, Justify
At the 59th meeting of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs in March 2016, Undersecretary for Health of Canada Hilary Geller expressed Canada’s interest in international cooperation and made it clear, “the Government remains committed to strong international cooperation to combat the world drug problem and wherever possible, will seek to align its objectives for a new marijuana regime with the objectives of the international drug control framework and the spirit of the Conventions.”
Canada is the first to take the position of “non-compliance.” With Geller’s announcement, Canada has laid the foundation for an ongoing debate on how to regulate cannabis at the national level without violating international legal obligations.
Even if the 1961 Single Convention could be amended, that would involve a complex, years-long process.
Canada could set a precedent in July 2018, by forcing the U.N. to rethink the position of cannabis for the first time since 1961. The aim of the process would be to give all member nations the opportunity to regulate recreational and medical cannabis in the future. Legislation in international agreements is never set in stone, it can be changed any time the democratic will of the member nations demands it.