The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (“UNODC”) recently released its 2019 World Drug Report which, among other things, claims that despite legalization in many states of the U.S., illicit markets in the U.S. have continued to thrive, while seizures have decreased and potency and use have increased. As the legalization debate heats up in the U.S., opponents will undoubtedly cite the UNODC findings, while proponents will have to address this data. Therefore, the report warrants close study by all who are interested in the future of marijuana law in the United States.

Among other things, the report found that:

  • Although one goal of legalization was to prevent organized crime groups from generating profits from cannabis, thriving illicit cannabis markets still exist in many of the states in the United States that allow non-medical use of cannabis. This is particularly evident in the states of Colorado and Washington, which, in 2012, were among the first jurisdictions in the country to allow the non-medical use of cannabis.
  • Despite the thriving illicit markets, law enforcement seizures are decreasing. For example, seizures of cannabis in North America have decreased by 77 percent since 2010.
  • During the period 2007-2017, the quantity of cannabis herb seized in regions other than North America doubled, which suggests that the decline in seizures in North America was the result og a policy decision, rather than declining global supply.
  • In California, initial attempts to license the sale of cannabis in 2018 resulted in prices that were higher than in the illicit market and thus failed to entice users away from the illicit market.
  • In the United States, liberalization has resulted in increased use, with annual cannabis use increasing from 9.9 percent in 2007 to 15.3 percent in 2017. The number of past-year users rose by 60 percent between 2007 and 2017, while the number of daily or near daily users increased by approximately 130 percent during the same time period. The increase has been most pronounced among regular, non-medical users.
  • Liberalization has also resulted in increased potency. The proportion of tested cannabis concentrates that contain over 75% THC has increased fivefold over recent years. In Colorado, while the THC level of cannabis flower has remained lower than that of cannabis concentrates (20 percent versus 69 percent, in 2017), the potency of both product types increased by about 20 percent during the period 2014-2017.
  • The availability of cannabis with a comparatively higher THC content has resulted in an increasing number of people seeking treatment for cannabis use disorders, particularly among users aged 18-25 years.
  • As a result of legislation allowing non-medical cannabis, commercial companies are rapidly replacing artisanal producers of cannabis. With the market for non-medical use of cannabis expanding rapidly, profits are more likely to dictate and control the course of the cannabis industry than public health concerns, as evidenced by the increased potency of THC in cannabis products now sold on the open market.
  • The ongoing policy debate and its coverage in the media appear to have impacted the risk perception of harm caused by cannabis use, especially among young people. This is illustrated by the marked increase in more frequent and heavy use of cannabis, which is concerning because scientific literature suggests that regular and heavy use of cannabis is a risk factor for acute and chronic health problems.

While the UNODC findings may be subject to dispute, they will undoubtedly play a role in the debate. Therefore, proponents of legalization will have to address them, just as they will have to address the arguments of the UNODC that legalization of recreational marijuana violates various international treaties that the United States itself sponsored including the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, an issue which we previously discussed in this post.


Tom Firestone is located in Baker McKenzie's Washington D.C. office and Co-chair of the firm's North American Government Enforcement practice.