Last week, word that the WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) recommended that cannabis be down scheduled in international drug control conventions made headlines.
Since then, policy experts have weighed in, and while there is a general consensus that the proposed changes constitute a move forward, some have pointed to key details that could have substantial implications for global and national regulations and especially for the medical cannabis industry.
On January 24, the UN’s Secretary-General António Guterres finally received a letter with the Committee’s recommendations. These were then relayed to the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), which has the power to vote on whether and where a drug should be listed.
The CND, comprised of representatives from 53 countries, is scheduled to vote on these recommendations in March. However, because regional multilateral consultations are required before it takes place, the vote could be postponed until next year. The CND, moreover, could opt to implement or reject any of the following recommendations:
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Cannabis and cannabis resin
The ECDD recommends that cannabis and cannabis resin be deleted from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs. Here, it should be noted that—unlike in the United States, where Schedule I is the most stringent of categories—under the 1961 Convention, Schedule IV is the most restrictive and includes dangerous substances with extremely limited or no medical value. And so, in removing cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV, the WHO is effectively acknowledging its medical utility.
Additionally, if the Committee’s recommendation is implemented, cannabis and cannabis resin will only be listed in Schedule I of the 1961 Convention, which includes products and substances like opium, coca leaf, cocaine, and fentanyl.
Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst at Transform Drug Policy Foundation, a think tank based in the UK and Mexico, said that this recommendation is “a welcome and overdue acknowledgement of the medical usefulness of cannabis.” However, pointing to the explanatory annex to the ECDD’s letter, in which the Committee recognizes that cannabis is not associated with “the same level of risk to health of most other drugs that have been placed in Schedule I,” Rolles added that “it is disappointing [that] the Committee [has] recommended [that] cannabis remain in Schedule I alongside heroin, cocaine and other demonstrably more risky drugs, despite stating clearly that it does not belong there based on their own risk assessment.”
Scheduling, Rolles said, “should be based on an objective science — and the decision for the recommendation to not follow their own scientific assessment of relative risks points to political interference in their decision making process.” Ultimately, the ECDD justified their decision pointing to “high rates of public health problems arising from cannabis use and the global extent of such problems.”
Tetrahydrocannabinol and dronabinol
The ECDD recommends that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and dronabinol, a synthetic form of cannabis used to treat nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy, be deleted from the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances and added to Schedule I of the 1961 Convention. This change would simplify the scheduling, grouping all forms of THC in the same category as cannabis and cannabis resin.
Because the ECDD had previously determined that cannabidiol (CBD) doesn’t warrant being regulated, it was expected that the Committee would recommend that it be removed from International Drug Control Conventions. In its letter to the Secretary-General, the ECDD did just that. Also, because there were doubts regarding CBD preparations containing some THC, the Committee clarified that “Preparations containing predominantly cannabidiol and not more than 0,2% of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol are not under international control.”
Extracts and tinctures
The ECDD also recommends that cannabis extracts and tinctures be deleted from Schedule I of the 1961 Convention.
Finally, the Committee suggests that “preparations produced either by chemical synthesis or as preparation of cannabis, that are compounded as pharmaceutical preparations with one or more ingredients” and in such a way that dronabinol cannot be easily extracted, like Sativex, be placed in Schedule III of the 1961 Convention—the least restrictive category— which includes pharmaceutical preparations containing low amounts of narcotic drugs, such as cough syrup with less than 2.5% codeine. Notably, under the International Drug Control Conventions, a country could export products listed in Schedule III without having to adhere to international quotas or being obligated to acquire import permits from the receiving country.
Clarification: a previous version stated that the ECDD recommended that cannabis “instead” be placed in Schedule I. That word was removed to make clear cannabis had already been listed under Schedule I, in addition to Schedule IV, therefore, the recommended change applies solely to the removal of cannabis from Schedule IV.