In Monitoring Global Cannabis Flows, Will the INCB Turn a New Direction?

By Esteban Rossi I., Ph.D., Analyst, New Frontier Data 

The International Narcotic Drugs Control Board (INCB) is an independent and quasi-judicial control organ tasked with monitoring the implementation of international drug control treaties. Since cannabis remains a controlled substance in numerous jurisdictions, the INCB estimates the medical needs of legal cannabis production for member countries, and relies on a system of production quotas to regulate global production. It maintains an evolving role in the international industry, with implications felt across the globe.

INCB mandate

Legal scholars define the international drug policy regime as a set of legal norms and practices for states and international organizations to regulate the trade of controlled substances. The functions of the INCB stem from the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 (amended by the 1972 Protocol), the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971, and the 1988 United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs. The INCB collaborates with governments to ensure that adequate supplies of drugs are available for medical and scientific uses, while also preventing the diversion of drugs from licit sources to illicit channels. In addition, the INCB monitors governments’ control over chemicals used in the illicit manufacture of drugs, and assists them in preventing diversion of those chemicals to illicit traffic.

Since the three drug conventions gather more than 90% of the world’s states, and drugs are widely regarded as a matter of public interest, the INCB is considered a unique example of multilateralism. Undoubtedly, it serves a pivotal role in monitoring drug-trade flows and assisting states with institutional capacity-building. Yet, unlike other multilateral organizations like the United Nations (UN) or the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the INCB does not play a diplomatic and neutral role on drug policy debates: since early days of regulation in Uruguay, it has questioned, critiqued, and actively opposed alternative policy approaches.

In 2013, then-incumbent INCB President Raymond Yans noted how “by violating the 1961 convention, the Uruguayan government was taking a pirate’s attitude to international diplomacy”. He subsequently argued that legislators disregarded scientific studies that confirmed that cannabis was harmful and particularly dangerous for the young.  The position established by the INCB then demonstrated its aims to control production by setting quotas.

Quota system

Under the existing quota system, the INCB grants countries authorization to produce high-THC cannabis for medical purposes. Assigned are based on a description of product characteristics, security protocols, and the final destination of the cannabis crop or derivatives, and it is up to the INCB to grant annual production quotas.

The quota system is not universally popular. Cannabis producers note that the process is painfully slow, and that production needs should be periodically updated. Analysts and commentators suggest that cannabis production quotas fail to capture the real size of the medicinal market: Colombia, for example, received quotas for more than 40 tons in 2017 and 2018, but received just 1.2 tons in 2019, raising concerns both among investors and the media (though by the end of 2020, Colombia had not exported any meaningful quantities of THC-rich cannabis derivatives, and flower exports remained forbidden). While the INCB felt validated to consider those high quotas unnecessary, investors and local regulators should take note that quotas are neither commercially relevant estimates for medicinal markets’ sizes, nor for the economic potential of any particular jurisdictions.

Critics also note how some wealthier countries (e.g., Canada, the United Kingdom, and Israel) disregard the quota system. In 2016 for example, the U.K. received quotas for 9 tons and produced 95. In turn, Israel in 2018 received quotas for roughly 10 tons and produced more than double those. For its part, Canada followed a few unfortunate exchanges with the INCB without receiving a 2018 quota, and apparently ceased reporting domestic production estimates, undermining the validity of the INCB’s mandate.

There are clear benefits for governments and the general public alike from improved understanding of global production patterns in both the legal and illicit markets. Though it is widely believed that unregulated cannabis production in Morocco, Paraguay, and Mexico provides for most of the consumption in the EU, Brazil, and regions of the U.S., those markets remain poorly understood. Thus, the INCB and other international bodies could perform crucial roles in monitoring such trade flows in collaboration with law enforcement agencies.

Suffice to say, cannabis policies keep advancing, as production figures and public support confirm. As the INCB noted in its annual report, “since 2015, an increasing number of countries started to use cannabis and cannabis extracts for medical and research purposes, and also authorized its cultivation. For 2019, the licit production comprised 468.3 tons”.

Then-president Cornelis P. de Joncheere asserted how the INCB “remains concerned about legislative developments in a number of countries with regard to the non-medical use of cannabis, and is engaged in a close dialogue with member states with a view to supporting them in implementing the provisions of the international drug control conventions, and safeguarding public health and well-being”. Some optimistically interpret that as indication that the INCB aims for a more inclusive understanding of international cannabis legislation.

A new policy regime

While it is impossible to forecast the evolution of the international cannabis policy regime, its key elements seem more predictable. As observed in Uruguay, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and New York State in the U.S.A., legislative advances will seek to protect human rights, improve health outcomes, create economic opportunities, and reduce crime. Those overarching goals resonate globally on behalf of both public interests and economic needs.

Yet, the devil remains in the details. Determining legal and technical boundaries between medical and adult-use programs, cannabis and hemp protocols, regulations for raw materials and derivatives, and definitions of what constitute fair trade will remain contentious. Meanwhile, emboldened entrepreneurs and legislators will continue to take risks to forge new cannabis policies, and international organizations will facilitate broader discussions.

Toward those ends, it will be helpful to recall the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)’s 2006 advice that “the gap between the letter and spirit of the Single Convention, so manifest with cannabis, needs to be bridged, or parties to the Convention need to discuss redefining the status of cannabis”.

*New Frontier Data takes no stated position on the merits of cannabis legalization. Rather, its mission and mandate are to inform cannabis-related policy and business decisions through rigorous, issue-neutral, and comprehensive analysis of the legal cannabis industry worldwide.