Canada: Compliant At This Time: Canada's Options Regarding Its Treaty Obligations And The Legalization And Regulation Of Non-Medical Cannabis

Canada is party to three treaties which obligate the country to maintain the prohibition and criminalization of cannabis for non-medical and non-scientific purposes. Due to the specific notice provisions of these treaties, July 1, 2017 was the last day that Canada could have withdrawn from its treaty obligations in time to meet the federal government's self-imposed deadline to legalize and regulate non-medical cannabis on or before July 1, 2018.

The three treaties Canada is a signatory to are: (i) the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, as amended by the 1972 Protocol Amending the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, (ii) the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, 1971, and (iii) the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, 1988 (each a "Treaty" and collectively the "Treaties"). The legalization and regulation of non-medical cannabis is in violation with the terms of each of the Treaties, leaving the federal government of Canada with three potential avenues if it wishes to legalize and regulate non-medical cannabis: withdraw from the Treaties, disregard the Treaty obligations, or seek accommodation or attempt to comply within the terms of the Treaties.

In order to gain some insight as to the government's intentions on this matter, James Munro, Co-Chair of McMillan's Cannabis Practice Group, contacted Global Affairs Canada and asked where Canada stood regarding its obligations under the Treaties. A representative of Global Affairs Canada provided the following response:

"The federal government is taking a regulatory approach to better protect the health and safety of Canadians. This is our priority.‎ We are currently examining a range of issues, including our international commitments. Four American states have legalized recreational marijuana and four have voted to legalize. Uruguay has also legalized marijuana and it is among the countries, like Canada, that is a signatory to the international drug treaties.

We are committed to working with our global partners to best promote public health and combat illicit drug trafficking.‎ Canada remains fully compliant with its obligations under the international drug treaties at this time."

In the following paragraphs, we will consider the federal government's three potential options regarding the Treaties, as well as the response by Global Affairs Canada.


The United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, 1988, establishes that withdrawal from the Treaty takes effect one year after notice is received by the Secretary-General. Due to Canada's failure to provide such notice by July 1, 2017, it is unlikely that Canada will be able to be compliant with this Treaty in time for the federal government's self-imposed legalization and regulation deadline of on or before July 1, 2018. However, if withdrawal from this Treaty occurs in the near future, such non-compliance would be for a limited duration.

The withdrawal terms of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, as amended by the 1972 Protocol Amending the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, and the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, 1971 are somewhat different. Both of these Treaties require withdrawal notices to be provided on or before July 1, 2017 in order to take effect January 1, 2018. Any notice provided after July 1, 2017 would take effect on January 1, 2019. Clearly, if the federal government of Canada legalizes and regulates cannabis for non-medical purposes on or before July 1, 2018, any notice provided as of today's date under these two Treaties will result in a relatively lengthy period of non-compliance.  

Disregarding Treaty Obligations

One possibility that exists for any sovereign nation that voluntarily enters into a treaty is to simply disregard its treaty obligations. As an example, Uruguay was also a signatory to the Treaties. In 2013, Uruguay opted to not withdraw from the Treaties when it enacted legislation to legalize non-medical cannabis. The International Narcotics Control Board sharply disapproved Uruguay's choice to ignore its obligations under the Treaties; however, the ramifications for Uruguay appear to have been limited1.

Taking into account Canada's active role in the international community, it seems unlikely that the federal government of Canada would opt for the route Uruguay chose and ignore its treaty obligations. However, in their above-quoted response, Global Affairs Canada provides Uruguay as an example of a country that legalized cannabis for non-medical purposes and was subject to the Treaties. Does this mean that the federal government of Canada is considering the option of disregarding its obligations under the Treaties in a similar manner to Uruguay?  Canada, unlike Uruguay, is a G7 country, and therefore one may expect that Canada's violation of an international treaty would generate more upset within the international community than in the case of Uruguay.

Global Affairs Canada also provided the example of four American states that have legalized cannabis for non-medical purposes. This example is not relevant to Canada's obligations under the Treaties because these states are not signatories to the Treaties. The United States federal government is the signatory to the Treaties and the United States federal government has not legalized cannabis use2.

Accommodation within the terms of the Treaties

Canada can also seek various types of accommodation from the participating countries of the Treaties. Canada could attempt to negotiate with the other parties to the Treaties for an exemption that allows Canada to create its non-medical cannabis industry. The probability of success for such a diplomatic endeavour remains unknown, as there would be many parties at the negotiating table, each with their own priorities regarding the restriction of narcotics.

A recent paper from the University of Ottawa proposed another mechanism that Canada could use to achieve compliance with the Treaties while meeting the July 1, 2018 legalization deadline3. Each of the Treaties contains an exemption for use of cannabis related to 'scientific purposes'. The authors conclude that if Canada instituted a national study of the impact of cannabis legalization and claimed the scientific purposes exemption, there is a possibility that Canada could remain bound by the terms of the Treaties while proceeding with the proposed legalization and regulation. It remains unknown whether the scope of such an exemption would be properly met in this case, or whether the federal government of Canada would consider relying on such an exemption.


If the federal government of Canada wishes to effect the legalization and regulation of non-medical cannabis on or before July 1, 2018, its options under the Treaties are limited. The deadline for withdrawal under the Treaties has passed. The other two options of disregarding the obligations of the Treaties or seeking accommodation/compliance within the terms of the Treaties are limited and imperfect. The federal government of Canada has not provided any clarity on how it intends to address its obligations under the Treaties. If Canada is to become a leader in the non-medical cannabis industry, the federal government of Canada should proceed thoughtfully regarding its obligations under the Treaties and be transparent in its intended approach.


1. Hugo Alves, Matthew Kronby & George Reid, "Alves, Kronby & Reid: When it comes to pot, Canada shouldn't worry too much about treaty obligations", The National Post (18 January 2016).

2. The concepts of "medical cannabis" and "recreational cannabis" do not exist under U.S. federal law. Specifically, under the U.S. Controlled Substances Act "marihuana" is illegal under U.S. federal law and is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance.

3. Fultz et al., Reconciling Canada's Legalization of Non-Medical Cannabis with the UN Drug Control Treaties, Global Health Law Clinic Publication Series, April 2017.

The foregoing provides only an overview and does not constitute legal advice. Readers are cautioned against making any decisions based on this material alone. Rather, specific legal advice should be obtained.

© McMillan LLP 2017

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.