An eagerly anticipated World Health Organization decision on CBD—one that could eventually help ignite a global market—may not arrive this spring after all.
Back in December 2018, the WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence was scheduled to release its findings on a two-year assessment of cannabis and its derivatives. Because the Expert Committee had previously determined that cannabidiol (CBD) doesn’t warrant being regulated, it was widely expected that the committee would recommend that CBD be removed from International Drug Control Conventions, and that other parts of the plant be placed in less stringent categories.
That would be a big deal. If the Expert Committee released such a finding soon, it could then be voted on by members of the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs this March. The Commission, which has a rotating membership of 53 countries, has the power to change the status of controlled substances listed in the three major international drug policy treaties that arrange drugs in lists according to their perceived level of harm.
On the industry front, the rescheduling of cannabis—and the descheduling of CBD, which is already allowed in several prohibitionist countries for medical patients—has the potential to ignite an international industry already poised for takeoff. As Cannabis Wire has reported, the softening of national drug policy is often accompanied by an surge in investor interest.
But that Expert Committee vote may not materialize, at least this year.
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The Commission on Narcotic Drugs’ 62nd Session, which will be held in Vienna, is scheduled for March 14-22. And as a coalition of 177 NGOs working on drug policy issues—called the International Drug Policy Consortium—has pointed out, historically, the Expert Committee has shared its recommendations at least three months ahead of the session. Last month, the WHO announced that the Expert Committee’s recommendations on cannabis scheduling would be postponed for clearance reasons, without providing details. During the most recent intersessional meeting of the Commission, which took place on January 16, the Commission’s Secretary, Jo Dedeyne-Amann, said that the WHO still has not cleared the recommendations for release.
So, can the vote take place in March? “It is too early to foresee any possible development of this issue,” a WHO spokesperson told Cannabis Wire.
Others have predictions, however. Via email, Christopher Hallam, a research and analysis officer at the Consortium, the coalition of 177 NGOs, said he does expect the recommendations to be released in time for the CND’s 62nd Session. On the other hand, Juan Fernández Ochoa, a spokesperson for the Consortium, pointed out that during the last intersessional meeting, the Commission’s Secretary, Dedeyne-Amann, indicated that even if the Commission receives the Expert Committee’s recommendations before the 62nd Session, members could still decide to postpone the vote. Ultimately, he added, it is “the the prerogative of Member States, reunited at the Commission, to decide whether a vote during the March session is pertinent.”
Kenzi Riboulet-Zemouli, a researcher at an NGO called “For Alternative Approaches to Addiction, Think & do,” or FAAAT—which has operated as a watchdog during the UN’s cannabis review process—echoed these points. Because regional multilateral consultations are required before voting, Riboulet-Zemouli explained, member countries “need some time between the acknowledgements of the results and the vote.” So he expects a vote in March 2020, even if the reviews are released this March.
Under the International Drug Control Conventions, cannabis is registered as one of the most dangerous drugs with the least medical value, along with cocaine and fentanyl. Member states, moreover, are obligated to prohibit the possession, use, and distribution of scheduled drugs, as well as tasked with enforcement against trafficking. As a result, the schedules play a significant role in international law, which ultimately shape regulations at the national level.
Changing the status of cannabis within the International Conventions’ Schedules, according to FAAAT, could abate international pressure against drug policy reforms, generating increased opportunities for scientific research and medical access in member states and, perhaps, even paving the way for the global dismantling of cannabis prohibition.
Thus the vote by the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, in sum—whether it takes place this year or is pushed back to 2020—could unlock a never-before-seen multinational cannabis market.