Home » Side Event. Cannabis law reform: Leading the way towards more effective drug control and the attainment of the sustainable development goals

Side Event. Cannabis law reform: Leading the way towards more effective drug control and the attainment of the sustainable development goals

Organized by the Fields of Green for ALL (non-profit company) with the support of the Veterans Action Council, Virginians Against Drug Violence, Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, FAAAT.net, the Umzimvubu Farmer’s Support Network, the South African Drug Policy Initiative, the South African Network of People who Use Drugs, the Cannabis Community Council and Doctors for Cannabis Regulation (DFCR)  

Myrtle Clarke, Field of Green for ALL (Moderator): introduction to the first speaker, Paul-Michael Keichel. 

Paul-Michael Keichel, Attorney, Cullinan & Associates: Today, I limit myself to addressing you on Sustainable Development Goal number 10 – being Reduced Inequalities. I understand this to extend to reducing unequal laws and agreements and the unequal and arbitrary application onto civil society of those laws and agreements. What is the world’s most widely-used psychoactive drug? It’s caffeine. What lights up parts of your brain on an FMRI as does cocaine and is the true gateway to addiction and one’s body rotting away? You’d be correct if you knew or guessed sugar. Let us please maintain some perspective here, then. In the rotunda just down the hallway, displays are promoting the fashionably ethical caffeine offerings of various member states. Caffeine and sugar products, mass-produced in large factories across our world, are available from vending machines in these hallowed hallways, in exchange for only a few Euro cents. Why do we consume these substances without a second thought, often as part of our “respectable” morning rituals, yet are also dedicating so much time this week to the fine print of whether to loosen our global controls over analogous indulgences and vices?  There were at least three outstanding statements from the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, His Excellency Volker Türk, as he contributed to the opening of the plenary session on Monday. They have been reinforced by many member states and UN representatives here since. These were the following: Drug policy must be grounded in human rights. Bad drug policy, including criminalization, especially when enforced militaristically, can clearly do more harm to society and individuals than the often vague drug harms that individual member states and this umbrella body would say they are trying to prevent. Prohibition policies and the “war on drugs” have proved to be failures and should be abandoned in favour of transformative, human-centred policies. In short, the enforcement of drug prohibition through the criminal justice systems of our world equates to, or results in, the violation of human rights. I am not sure that such explicit statements can or should be side-stepped, or snowed under, for any longer. Arrest and incarceration are experienced by a human being as violence. We would all like to think that we are anti-violence, yes? We all also all like to think that we want for all of humanity those ideals that underscore our Sustainable Development Goals, yes, including that we are all treated equally and that like cases attract like interventions? So I pose some questions here today: What are the real-life, civil society consequences of member states not dropping the ‘war on drugs’ (actually a war on drug users) with the same vigour with which they picked it up? And, what relation does that have to the fact that so many of those member states feel that they only went to that war on orders from the United Nations? I’m only able to speak from my South African perspective, but we know that most efforts towards local law reform have been met with the blanket statement from our government that “we have international obligations”. So we find ourselves in an a priori thought loop that has the likes of at least our government (until recently) refusing to engage in questions about the relative harms of drugs and what are proportionate versus disproportionate interventions. It goes like this: “The UN told us that all drugs are equally bad and must be prohibited – so we, your local, sovereign government, agree that they’re all bad and must be prohibited. Sit down and behave”. Compound this all with the fact that, despite having one of the most progressive and liberal constitutions in the world, which is studied and celebrated across the globe, we South Africans found ourselves apparently emerging from a decade of so-called “state capture” (this being where our state-owned enterprises were officially looted from the inside-out) and straight into the darkness Covid-2019 lockdown. In an unprecedented move, our government banned the sale of tobacco and alcohol products. This was apparently to protect us from ourselves. Imagine how we felt when we later learnt that the inevitable thriving of the black market in these things had been achieved by the friends and associates of many of the same officials who had thought up the draconian bans, or prohibitions, in the first place?! How does this sort of abuse “reduce inequality”? In 2018, we South Africans had a major legal victory in our Constitutional Court, when it came to cannabis law reform. I was there, in Court on that day. In theory, we can now cultivate, possess and consume in private. But, 5 years on, we still don’t see the average South African provided with the equal opportunity to uplift themselves out of their poverty in what ought, by now, to be a reasonably and rationally regulated cannabis and hemp industry. We have some reason to believe many officials who have been holding back the liberalisation of our local cannabis laws may have been motivated by the same shadow interests as had tobacco and alcohol unconstitutionally prohibited in 2020. Is this how we promote and protect so many of those overlapping and interrelated SDGs, especially when things like an economic boost and greater renewable energy security are so sorely needed in my country? In the meantime, average, petty drug users continue to be intimidated, harassed and shaken down for bribes by the South African Police Service, all because there hasn’t yet been a clear executive order for them to cease such human rights abuses. Why? Because, with respect, our executive (self-interests and all) still has room to point its finger at vague and frankly outdated obligations apparently owed to this umbrella body. The lives and livelihoods of countless average people continue to be ruined daily, all under the auspices of preventing the harms of drugs that have long-ago proved to be insignificant when compared to the established harms of being dragged through any criminal justice system. All the worse in societies such as mine, which traumatically favour notions of retributive and punitive justice over softer, more human notions such as restorative justice and reasonable accommodation of difference and diversity. We heard on Monday from the likes of Uruguay, Canada, the Netherlands and Colombia, about how treating the drug issue a little more sensitively to human rights hasn’t had the sky fall down on their heads. In fact, the opposite – trend lines remained constant. Yet, the cautious-approach conclusion always seems to remain that “these are still early days, not all relevant data is in, and we won’t yet know what is what for some time to come”. If this is indeed all new data, yet to be computed and understood, then is this not a direct concession that the data was never there in the first instance to have justified Mr. Anslinger’s internationally-adopted approach to the ‘war on drugs’? To me, this suggests that, instead of drug users having to wait for the UN and its member states to fully interrogate and then motivate the notion of dropping the war on drugs (I repeat, actually on drug users) the correct and rational approach ought, instead, to be for the them to motivate for why they wish to keep fighting any part of this long-stale war for even a moment longer. Hasn’t there already been enough of making civil society beg for the basic human rights to which they ought anyway to be entitled? If the UN and the WHO have realised (as they seem to have) that the original motivations for the war on drugs are slipping, or have fallen away, then they ought to state their abandonment with the same sort of clarity and certainty as when they first adopted it at the request of its more dominant member states, so many horrible decades ago. Only then will the likes of my own government have their own illegitimate justifications eroded and will the groundwork be laid for the international advancement of human rights and equality in the drug space. Member states need to know that they don’t owe it to the UN to lock their drug users in cages. Like it or not, more clear statements from the UN are the only thing that will lead the way. Please, we beg of you – let’s not fall back on red tape for the sake of red tape. It was all anyway put there by this umbrella body itself. In fairness, yes, we understand that things like the Vienna Consensus cannot easily be wished way, but the words of His Excellency, the High Commissioner on Human Rights, being essentially that drug prohibition is an abuse of human rights, ought to be the front-and-centre of the clear messages that the UN conveys to its member states. Please, again with due respect, let us cease with further statements of problems without solutions. Self-created bureaucracies surely cannot mean that civil society must wait even longer to re-claim their rights to do (within reason) with and to their own bodies and minds whatever they like, absent government interference or punishment. Remember – you all exercised those rights this morning, when you drank your espressos and ate your chocolate pastries. Thank you, sincerely.    

 Myrtle: To introduce the next speaker, Dr. Brian Adinoff is an MD from California, he is an addiction psychiatrist and an academician. Dr. Adinoff has published over 200 articles on cannabis and is the editor of the Journal of Drugs and Drug Abuse. He is president of Doctors For Cannabis Regulation. 

 Dr Brian Adinoff, DFCR: Today I will talk about cannabis and achieving the SDGs from a medical perspective, specifically on goal 3 on health and well-being, and goal 16 on justice, human rights and rule of law. The interaction between justice and health is key to the logo of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation that I am president of, a group of several hundred physicians that support the legalization of cannabis. The logo contains symbols from Greek mythology and includes a representation of lady justice. Cannabis is a medicine, it has been used and presently used to treat many illnesses. From a sustainable development perspective, it helps achieve goal 3. Medical cannabis is mostly legal on four continents, but there is not necessarily a strong structure, e.g. people can’t necessarily grow it and doctors don’t know a lot about it. First we need to educate physicians on endocannabinoids and how to prescribe it. Re-scheduling cannabis is not enough. The INCB criticized it. There is a need for more research, protection for small businesses. We have made some steps towards setting up this structure, including establishing the International Intoxicating Cannabis Product Symbol. It has been approved by one of the world’s largest standardization organisations, the ASTM. On the second SDG goal 18, cannabis prohibition impacts those individuals, cultures, and countries already disenfranchised and of lower income. There are likely millions of arrests annually, and in addition a person can lose employment, driver’s license, child custody, along with the trauma of incarceration and all these losses. These impacts are severe, especially considering it is for substance similar to caffeine and sugar. Expungement of prior criminal records in US states that are legalizing cannabis also needs to happen, as well as in other countries around the world.  

Myrtle: Our next speaker is a veteran, and also of the CND. Michael also helped to establish the NYNGOC in the lead up to UNGASS 2016, and advocated for the rescheduling of cannabis. 

 Michael Kravitz: My story as a veteran, is that I was injured while serving in Guam. A 2-second period redirected my life. I was on a career track and the next thing I know I was under surgery, and sent back home. That time, in the 1980s, even though it was possible to learn about cannabis as medicine, I learned it the hard way. In the 1970s as I was growing up, understanding about cannabis was mostly as a counterculture not as medicine. I have lost count of how many treatments the VA put me on to relieve pain. What I found with cannabis is that I was able to use it and able to effectively reduce pain. By taking a small amount of opiate medication together with the cannabis, worked for me – I have an artificial hip and other issues that made it difficult to find effective pain relief medication. There are a range of medications for veterans, but cannabis is able to treat many different ailments effectively. On the impacts of prohibition, it has affected so many parts of culture. From 1950s, there was an experience of taking cannabis from India to US and from then on there were medications developed containing cannabis. Prohibition has shaped this profoundly – there is very little historical record of smoking and it was consumed more as candy. Trends now are coming back to this, but we need to protect against it, e.g. take growing cannabis out of basements. There needs to be single molecule studies on cannabis. We never intended to prove with a cascade that we needed a double blind placebo based study the effectiveness of cannabis. We need to go back to how cannabis was grown by communities, out in nature under the sun. The way it is unfolding now, with opponents blocking our efforts to develop effective regulations, we need to work together on prevention, treatment, harm reduction, medicinal access. We have a common and shared responsibility to make sure we have access for everyone. I promised the growers that i would mention suicide. There is a way to prevent suicide that is happening in the US, particularly amongst veterans. Veterans are dying from suicide at a faster rate than on the battlefield.  

Myrtle: our next speaker is Marron Krinz, a German photographer and storyteller. Her work has been published in international leading publications, and the author of 4 books. Her latest work is on hemp, ‘H is for Hemp’. Marron works on the rediscovery of industrial hemp in countries around the world. She interviewed experts to show the ecological impacts of the climate crisis for the book and it is printed with hemp paper.  

Marron: I couldn’t have any more nurturing ground to do my work in the past 6 years without the work of the speakers before me, which shows the need to reschedule cannabis. My way into cannabis was through hemp, and its use as a building material. When I started my research work into hemp, I started hearing about medical cannabis and learned that there is just one molecule that separates the plant from being used as a building material to being a drug, supposedly. Paper was a logical topic for me to research. Up until 1850, paper was still made by rags, from flax made into linen and hemp. If you look at the chart of the left hand side of the slide, you can see that there is very little left of trees to create paper. Hemp has so many uses, for paper, for clothing and building materials. We don’t have much time to keep this substance being categorized as a drug while using hemp for these other materials could help with climate change mitigation, e.g. it can pull up heavy metals from contaminated land. We can’t delay this because of these ongoing discussions on whether hemp is a drug or not. If you scan the barcode on the slide, you can follow me on my website and social media. Thank you.

Myrtle: We have to close now, but we know that cannabis is a gateway drug against achieving the SDGs. 

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