Cannabis business lawyersI had the opportunity last Friday to spend some time with officials from Jamaica’s Cannabis Licensing Authority. The University of Washington’s Cannabis Law & Policy Project and the Washington Office on Latin America put the event together so that Jamaica’s cannabis regulators could speak to a few experienced cannabis business and regulatory lawyers to get input on what does and doesn’t work in Washington, Oregon, California, and Colorado, and the various other states with some form of cannabis legalization. Our firm has participated in events like these before involving various countries, including the Canadian government, the French government, and with groups of Japanese, Spanish, German, Israeli and other investors. Though the main goal is to be helpful to these countries that are building out their own systems, we always tend to learn a few things, and this event was no different.

One challenge Jamaica’s regulators are trying to deal with is how to protect small domestic farmers. The goal of cannabis legalization, for Jamaica and for most other countries, is twofold — to avoid putting people in jail for possessing marijuana and to provide a new legal business avenue for its residents. But not all legalization is created equal, and countries that don’t take precautions can end up cutting out their less connected citizens. Most Jamaican farmers are not going to hire attorneys to fill out complicated license applications. So, if Jamaica’s system implements any type of paper-heavy up front filing requirements, it will be leaving out the people its regulators most want to protect. This isn’t about keeping foreigners away entirely, as foreign finance can be a good thing. But it is about crafting rules and licensing requirements to make them accessible to those in society you are trying to reach.

Another issue Jamaica faces that comes up consistently for small countries looking to legalize cannabis is the fallout of potentially violating treaty obligations. The United States and 184 other countries are signatories to the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, as amended. The Single Convention’s goal is to prohibit the production and supply of various drugs, including cannabis. Cannabis is listed on Schedule IV of the Single Convention — the most restrictive schedule set aside for drugs particularly prone to abuse and to produce ill effects, without an offset of therapeutic advantages. Even if cannabis were not listed on Schedule IV, Article 28 calls it outs specifically, requiring that any production of cannabis be completely controlled by the signatory’s government.

If you’ve never read the Single Convention before, its language can seem stilted and incomplete. This is what happens when a single document is supposed to be equally enforceable in 6 languages. But even with the odd language, the treaty is relatively clear that countries are supposed to keep cannabis illegal.

When the United States doesn’t comply with its treaty obligations, nothing much happens. The United States abides by international law because we want to and we want other countries to do the same, but the U.S. court system has consistently allowed the United States to avoid its treaty obligations by virtue of the treaty being non-self-executing: we need to pass additional domestic law to make it enforceable. Regarding the Single Convention, the United States contends that it still meets its treaty obligations regarding marijuana because it is still federally illegal, despite multiple states legalizing it.

But for Jamaica, and similarly-sized countries, the restrictions of international drug control treaties are vastly more important. Jamaica receives millions of dollars in foreign aid annually, and many foreign aid require Jamaica abide by its treaty obligations, including its obligations under the Single Convention. Any move by Jamaica to legalize cannabis in a way that is not at least arguably compliant with the Single Convention places this foreign aid at risk. This isn’t to say that Jamaica’s regulatory scheme doesn’t meet those obligations — it’s just that the stakes are higher for Jamaica than they are for us.

So, to add to the list of reforming U.S. banking laws, tax laws, and overall drug laws, we may want to do our small country friends a favor and revisit the Single Convention on Narcotics’s approach to marijuana. The United National General Assembly Special Sessions in April of this year had some people hoping for some progress, but nothing came of it, as they released a statement that didn’t even acknowledge cannabis legalization in various countries.

The struggle continues.