The Canadian government touted the benefits of its legal, regulated marijuana market in comments to the United Nations recently, saying that since legal sales began in the country a year and a half ago, “the illegal market has already lost 30% of its market share” and “rates of use have not changed among youth and young adults.”

The remarks were delivered last Monday to the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs by Michelle Boudreau, director general for Health Canada’s controlled substances department. As a whole, they portray the country’s decision to legalize cannabis as a victory for public health despite ongoing skepticism from some in the international community.

Canada passed legislation to legalize marijuana for adults in 2018, becoming the largest nation ever to do so. The move technically ran afoul of international drug treaties that still forbid marijuana legalization, but the country nevertheless proceeded with the change.

In her remarks to the UN commission, Boudreau stopped short of encouraging other countries to legalize, which may have further rankled UN officials, but she pushed back against international concerns that legalization would endanger public health and young people.

“The illegal market has already lost 30% of its market share, and we have seen no corresponding increase in the overall size of the market,” Boudreau said, according to a written copy of her remarks. “This represents nearly $2 billion in sales that did not go to criminal organizations.”

She added that “initial data suggests that rates of cannabis use have not changed among youth and young adults,” nor has the country seen an increase in movement of cannabis across international borders.

“We will continue to collect data and evaluate the impact of Canada’s new regulatory framework and will ensure that any future decisions are well informed by this data,” Boudreau said.

Canada’s comments were delivered less than a week after the UN International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) expressed skepticism around legalization, writing in an annual report that it “remains concerned at the legislative developments permitting the use of cannabis for ‘recreational’ uses.”

“Not only are these developments in contravention of the drug control conventions and the commitments made by States parties,” the UN report said, but “the consequences for health and well-being, in particular of young people, are of serious concern.”

There are signs, however, that global drug policy could be changing soon. The international prohibition on cannabis legalization is nearly 60 years old at this point, as contained in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. And many, including the president of INCB itself, have openly wondered whether its cannabis provisions are out of date.

Discussing cannabis and synthetic drugs during a UN presentation late last month, INCB President Cornelis P. de Joncheere questioned whether blanket prohibition is still the right approach.

“We have some fundamental issues around the conventions that state parties will need to start looking at,” he said, according to Marijuana Business Daily. “We have to recognize that the conventions were drawn up 50 and 60 years ago.”

Joncheere added that 2021 is “an appropriate time to look at whether those are still fit for purpose, or whether we need new alternative instruments and approaches to deal with these problems.”

Last year, the World Health Organization recommended that marijuana be removed from the most restrictive category of controlled substances under the 1961 treaty. The proposal would shift cannabis and THC to the drug convention’s least-restricted category.

The UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs was set to vote on the WHO recommendation this month, but the vote has been pushed back until December.

In her statements to the UN, Canada’s Boudreau stressed the importance of her country’s public-health approach to drug policy. Part of that approach includes efforts to reduce stigma around drug use, she said, and to that end the nation has included “members of civil society, including people with lived and living experience with substance use, on our delegation.”

“Canada is continuing to make efforts to reflect a broader range of voices in the design of all of our domestic drug policies, including civil society organizations, and people who use drugs,” she said.

Although Canada remains in violation of international treaties on cannabis legalization, Boudreau emphasized the nation’s “strong partnership with the [United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime] to achieve the aims of the international drug conventions.”

“Our partnership includes efforts to address illegal trafficking of opioids, their precursors and other synthetic drugs, through projects such as Smart Lab and AIRCOP,” she said. “We also contribute to the Container Control Program which facilitates seizures of illegal drugs and interception of cash couriers. Since 2015 Canada has delivered considerable technical assistance and equipment via the UNODC, with disbursements totaling approximately $54 million.”

Meanwhile, some domestic lawmakers in Canada want the country to go further by decriminalizing the possession of all drugs for personal use. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who led the country’s push to legalize cannabis, reiterated last week that he opposes the move.

“We will take a look at the proposals but as we’ve said many times, we believe in harm reduction, we believe in evidence-based policy,” Trudeau told reporters on Thursday. “Our approach is to ensure that people get the support they need. We do not believe that decriminalizing hard drugs is a solution right now.”

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