International Law


A favourite argument used by the UK and other Governments is that national laws and policies are governed by international opinions and treaties; they tend to choose which opinions they listen to on the basis of which opinions they agree with - such is the nature of politicians - challenging the rulings of European Courts when considered not to be in the interest of the country (British Beef Bans, banning of razor wire around prisons etc).

The treaty which concern us, as far as cannabis is concerned, and the treaty upon which the UK Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is based, is the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961. The principle of this treaty is that the possession, use, trade in, distribution, import, export, manufacture and production of drugs is exclusively limited to medical and scientific purposes.

The spirit of the treaty was to completely eradicate the cultivation and use of cannabis within thirty years; many consider it fortunate that this aim was not achieved. This failure applies to all the drugs which are listed in the schedules of the treaty; despite the "War on Drugs" there are more hard drug addicts worldwide than ever before. The measures adopted to eradicate cannabis (as well as the opium poppy and coca leaf) were ones of repression. This was emphasised in the 1988 Vienna Convention against the Illicit Traffic of Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, which provided for international co-operation, extradition and the confiscation of assets; this resulted in the UK the Drug Trafficking Offences Act. The problem with these conventions is, in our opinion is that cannabis has been misrepresented and mis-classified within the treaties.

In the Single Convention cannabis is included in Schedule 1, alongside natural opium and semi-synthetic opium (morphine, heroin), opiates, derivatives of coca (cocaine), pethidine, methadone. Cannabis is also included in Schedule 4, substances deemed to be particularly dangerous and with an extremely limited or no therapeutic value. The main criteria of classification within the 4 schedules is based on medicinal value and use.

In the Vienna Convention cannabis is included in schedule 1, that is drugs causing serious risk to public health, whose therapeutic value is doubtful or nil; other drugs in this schedule include LSD25, and DMT.

Most governments including that of the UK, would be reluctant to withdraw from these treaties. Yet although the treaties prohibit the use of cannabis everywhere, many countries and their police forces turn a blind eye to at least the locals who smoke cannabis, choosing not to prosecute for small amounts - Holland, Spain, Italy, Switzerland and now Germany. Britain, however, using a somewhat random system of cautioning first and even second time offenders in some parts of the country, fine or imprison people for traces elsewhere.

The recent introduction of urine tests for cannabis both inside and outside of Her Majesties Prisons takes this to the ridiculous. One can be punished for having consumed cannabis weeks ago (it stays in the blood that long), possibly even through passive smoking.

Cannabis is mis-classified within these conventions. Rather than destroy the whole agreement there exist Articles to allow for the reclassification of substances within or between the schedules. Article 3 of the UN Single Convention allows the schedules to be amended.

In order to legalise cannabis we must persuade the various parties to these international agreements to consider correcting this misrepresentation of cannabis, recognise that cannabis has many medicinal and therapeutic properties, and to address the situation and remove cannabis from the schedules

Legality of cannabis

Since the 20th century, most countries have enacted laws affecting the legality of cannabis regarding the cultivation, use, possession, or transfer of cannabis for recreational use. Many jurisdictions have lessened the penalties for possession of small quantities of cannabis, so that it is punished by confiscation or a fine, rather than imprisonment. Punishment focuses more on those who traffic and sell the drug on the black market. Some jurisdictions/drug courts use mandatory treatment programs for young or frequent users with freedom from "narcotic" drugs as goal. A few jurisdictions permit cannabis use for medicinal purposes. There are also changes in a more restrictive direction as in Canada, Denmark, Netherlands or United Kingdom and drug tests, more or less mandatory, are more common than before in many countries. Some countries allow the sale through drug companies.[citation needed] However, simple possession can carry long jail sentences in some countries, particularly in East Asia, where the sale of cannabis may lead to a sentence of life in prison or even execution.

Drug policy of the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, the national drug policy has officially four major objectives:

To prevent drug use and to treat and rehabilitate drug users.
To reduce harm to users.
To diminish public nuisance by drug users (the disturbance of public order and safety in the neighborhood).
To combat the production and trafficking of drugs.
It is a pragmatic policy. Most policymakers in the Netherlands believe that if a problem has proved to be unsolvable[citation needed], it is better to try controlling it instead of continuing to enforce laws with mixed results. By contrast, most other countries take the point of view that drugs are detrimental to society and must therefore be outlawed, even when such policies fail to eliminate drug use. This has caused friction between the Netherlands and other countries about the policy for cannabis, most notably with France and Germany. As of 2004, Belgium seems to be moving toward the Dutch model and a few local German legislators are calling for experiments based on the Dutch model. Switzerland has had long and heated parliamentary debates about whether to follow the Dutch model, most recently deciding against it in 2004; currently a ballot initiative is in the works on the question. In the last few years certain strains of cannabis with higher concentrations of THC and drug tourism have challenged the current policy and led to a re-examination of the current approach.

Netherlands has a high anti-drug related public expenditure, the second highest drug related public expenditure per capita of all countries in EU (after Sweden). 75% is law enforcement expenditures including police, army, law courts, prisons, customs and finance guards. 25% is health and social care expenditures including treatment, harm reduction, health research and educational including prevention and social affairs interventions.

Your Rights On Arrest

The Bust Card is reproduced here with permission of Release. A link to Release can be found at the bottom of this page and on our links page.

For information and help in dealing with the Police, the courts or drug problems, contact:

The Release Advice Line
020 772 999 04
10-6, Monday to Friday

You Have The Right To Be Treated Fairly And With Respect By The Police

You do not have to say anything to the police. BUT if you are later charged with a crime and you have not mentioned, when questioned, something that you later rely on in court, then this may be taken into account when deciding if you are guilty.

There may be good reasons why you do not wish to say anything to the police, and you should not be intimidated into answering questions. Get a solicitor down to see you in the police station as soon as possible.


There may be times when if you give an innocent explanation for what you have done, the police may leave you alone.

It is wise not to discuss the case with the police until you have consulted privately with a solicitor.

If the police are about to arrest you or have already arrested you, there is no such thing as a `friendly chat' to sort things out. Anything you say can later be used against you. Think before you talk.

When The Police Get It Wrong

If you want to challenge anything the police have done then get the names and addresses of any witnesses, make a written record as soon as possible after the event. It should be witnessed, dated and signed. If you are injured, or property is damaged, then take photographs or video recordings as soon as possible and have physical injuries medically examined.

If you have been treated unfairly then complain to a civil liberties group such as Release or contact a solicitor about possible legal action.

On The Street

If you are stopped by the police:
  • If they are not in uniform then ask to see their warrant card.
  • Ask why you have been stopped and at the end ask for a record of the search.
You can be stopped and searched if the police have a reasonable suspicion that you are in possession of:
  • controlled drugs
  • offensive weapon or firearms
  • carrying a sharp article
  • carrying stolen goods
  • if you are in a coach or train, going to, or you have arrived at, a sports stadium
There are other situations where you can be stopped and searched, for example:

If police fear there might be serious violence in a particular area they can stop and search anyone in that area for up to 24 hours. In these circumstances the police do not need co have a reasonable suspicion that you are carrying a weapon or committing a crime. This very wide power can be used at raves, demonstrations etc.


You run the risk of both physical injury and serious criminal charges if you physically resist a search. If it is an unlawful search you should take action afterwards by using the law.

In a Police Station

You always have the right:
  • to be treated humanely and with respect.
  • to see the written codes governing your right and how you are treated.
  • to speak to the custody officer (the officer who must look after your welfare).
  • to know why you have been arrested.
You also have the right (but they can in rare situations be delayed):
  • to have someone notified of your arrest (not to make a phone call yourself)
  • to consult with a solicitor privately.


Do not panic. You cannot be locked up indefinitely. The police sometimes keep you isolated and waiting in the cell to 'soften you up'. Above all else, try to keep calm. The police can only keep you for a certain period of time - normally a maximum of 24 hours (36 hours for a serious arrestable offence).

Make sure the correct time for your arrest is on the custody record.

Make sure you know why you have been arrested.

Insist on seeing a solicitor (you might have to wait, but it's always free). Ask them to be present when you are interviewed. Do not be put off seeing a solicitor by the police. It is your right, and it's free.

If you ask for anything and it is refused make sure this is written down on the custody record.

Search of your home

The police can search premises with the consent of the occupier.

A warrant can obtained from magistrates by the police to search premises for evidence of certain crimes.

The police can enter premises WITHOUT a search warrant in many situations, including:
  • following an arrest, the police are allowed to search premises the detained person occupies or has control over.
  • to capture an escaped prisoner
  • to arrest someone for an arrestable offence or certain public order offences.
  • to protect life or to stop serious damage to property.
Other laws give police specific powers to enter premises.


You are entitled to see a copy of any search warrant.
  • Police can use reasonable force to gain entry.
  • Police should give you information about their powers to search premises.
  • A record of the search must be kept by the police.
You or a friend should be allowed to be present during the search but this right can be refused if it is thought it might hinder investigations.

Release Publications 1995

RELEASE provides a range of services dedicated to meeting the health, welfare and legal needs of drugs users and those who live and work with them.

The organization was founded in 1967 in response to the growing number of young people who were coming into contact with illegal drugs.

With the voluntary support of many young professionals, Release established the first ever national drugs helpline and has maintained its pivotal role in the drugs and legal advice field and now operates a number of service programmes.

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