Cannabis and...human rights?
Play • 20 min

With dozens of countries having legalized medical marijuana and full legalization gaining speed across the globe, it’s easy to forget how the war on drugs drove so much foreign policy for so long — and how ravaging it was for mostly impoverished communities in countless countries.

That has been overwhelmingly positive — in some ways revolutionary, says Pien Metaal, a Senior Project Officer at the Transnational Institute’s Drugs and Democracy program.

“[Those changes] have made it possible for patients who are ill to access cannabis as a medicine,” Metaal said on The Cannabis Enigma podcast. “What we still have not seen is these benefits also going to the communities that have been so affected by its prohibition.”

Of course, that is not true across the board. Some Caribbean countries “have made a real effort to involve the traditional farmers — to give them licenses, to provide for amnesty that they can become legal producers for a medical market,” turning it into a development opportunity, Metaal explained.

In Uruguay, cannabis legalization was framed by the government as a human rights issue — or at least as a clash between international drug treaties and human rights obligations.

In Morocco, there are efforts to find ways for traditional growers and manufacturers of hash oil to gain access to medical marijuana or wellness markets in other countries.

“The treaties on drugs have forced them to criminalize their citizens because they use a certain substance,” Metaal said. “They have forced [the government] to put them in jail and take some rights away from them because of the fact that they use these drugs. So the balance between drug treaties and human rights is a very delicate one, and has not been taken into account up until now. This is something that is now starting to change.”

The problem with that is “there’s never been a real scientific evidence-based research on why cannabis should be a prohibited substance. It has been based on a series of assumptions that cannabis would lead to other drugs, but also that it would have effects on the morality of the people who use it” — often with explicit racist motivations and undertones.  

What is the prospect of change in the international system’s approach to the prohibition of cannabis? As of now, it is still listed as a Schedule I drug, which is usually categorized as having a high level of abuse and no accepted medical use.

Even now that global attitudes toward marijuana are changing, “this whole system is [still] based on these assumptions,” Metaal said.

Edited, produced, and mixed by Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man with technical assistance from Elana Goldberg. Music by Desca.

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