The Global Initiative For Drug Policy Reform

Extended Summary

That which is prohibited cannot easily be regulated


Cannabis is the most widely used illegal drug, with an estimated 166 million users worldwide. It is thus the mainstay of the ‘War on Drugs’. However, it has only ever held a relatively marginal position in international drug policy discussions. Cannabis came under the control of the international narcotics treaties as an afterthought, at a time when its use was confined to relatively small groups in a scattering of cultures.

The situation has however, been fundamentally transformed over the last half-century since its prohibition, due to cannabis having become firmly established as part of the youth culture, particularly in developed countries. Large illicit markets have emerged to supply the demand. The strenuous efforts to enforce prohibition through policing and quasi-military operations against illicit growing and sale have failed. Meanwhile, the efforts in themselves create substantial anguish and social harms.


In the United States, for example, approximately three-quarters of a million citizens are arrested every year for cannabis possession, and in certain producer/transit countries, such as Mexico, the War on Drugs, of which cannabis is a component, has led to a virtual state of war near the US border.

While rigorous enforcement of the international conventions, without consideration of alternative paths continues in many countries, penalties and enforcement have diminished de-facto in others. Substantive reform is hindered, however, by a rigid international system of regulation often out of touch with the realities surrounding contemporary cannabis use and the social harms associated with it.

In 1998 the international community agreed to a 10-year programme of activity on the control of illegal drug use and
markets at a United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) in New York. It was characterised by the slogan: ‚a drug free world, we can do it‛ . A commitment was made to review the programs progress in 2008/9. Clearly, the international community will not be able to report unequivocal success, as drugs are purer, cheaper, and more widely available than ever before. The laws themselves
are often enforced arbitrarily, leading to discrimination against minorities – and nowhere is this more evident than with cannabis. There is increasing disagreement between
governments on the appropriate policies to adopt. It is therefore essential that the process of review in 2009 be as transparent as possible, and that the experts from the relevant fields have the maximum opportunity to engage with the government officials and politicians who will ultimately decide on the future directions of drug policy.

The UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs has set up a ‘Ministerial Segment’ meeting for March 2009 to discuss the conclusions drawn from the review of the last 10 years of international drug control. The Beckley Foundation, an ECOSOC accredited NGO, will be presenting the Global Cannabis Commission Report and its findings in the margins of that meeting.