The Single Convention

As from 1954, the World Health Organization (WHO) started claiming that cannabis and its preparations no longer served any useful medical purpose and are therefore essentially obsolete. This decision was made under pressure of increasing reports by the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics that cannabis was a drug dangerous to society. 

Up to that moment, cannabis legislation had been based on a large number of international conventions, causing considerable legal confusion. It was therefore proposed to combine all legislation into a single international convention, the draft of which was finally accepted by the United Nations in 1961. Under this “Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs” cannabis and its products were defined as dangerous narcotics with a high potential for abuse and no accepted medicinal value. It reflected the belief that cannabis was a narcotic with a threat that
was equal to heroin, ecstasy and LSD. 

In following years several complementary treaties were made to strengthen the convention. These laws have been an important basis for the ‘War on Drugs’.

Since the Single Convention was introduced, the potential danger of recreational cannabis use has been much higher on the political agenda than any of its benefits as a source of fiber, food or medicines. 

According to the American president Nixon, cannabis was a secret weapon of the communists, being spread by the Jews to destabilize the Western world. This cannabis-related fear has been the base for the legislation that is nowadays obstructing the rediscovery of cannabis as a medicine. Although our scientific understanding of cannabis has increased significantly over the last years, these insights are only slowly and reluctantly incorporated into new legislation. 

In the coming years, a large variety of scientific and clinical data is expected to become available, further showing the medicinal effects of cannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system. Several Western countries are already providing medicinal cannabis products to patients, and some steps are even taken towards decriminalization of recreational cannabis use in a few countries. 

These shifts signal that the Single Convention, and the punishment-based prohibition that goes with it, may start to reach its expiry date. The legislation that follows it will depend for a large part on the quality of the scientific research available.