In January 2019, the World Health Organization catalyzed the global debate over the therapeutic potential of cannabis and its derivatives. The Organization recommended that cannabis be rescheduled in such a way that it is considered a medicine.
Cannabis and cannabis resin are on both Schedule IV and Schedule I of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs, a global drug control treaty. Schedule IV, the most restrictive, is for substances with little or no medical value. Specifically, the WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence recommended cannabis and cannabis resin be removed from Schedule IV, and be listed only on Schedule I. (This is the opposite of the US scheduling system, in which Schedule I is the most restrictive.)
That global debate continued Thursday, as the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs held the second intersessional meeting of the 63rd Session in Vienna, Austria, during which delegates spent hours discussing the WHO’s recommendations.
In addition to the WHO’s recommendation on rescheduling cannabis and cannabis resins, another significant recommendation relates to “cannabidiol preparations,” or CBD. The WHO already took a position in 2018 that pure CBD doesn’t warrant regulation. This latest recommendation is to put that position into effect by adding a note under the cannabis and cannabis resin entry under Schedule I that “Preparations containing predominantly cannabidiol and not more than 0,2% of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol are not under international control.”
(The WHO committee also made other recommendations, on which Cannabis Wire previously reported.)
All of these recommendations are expected to receive a vote in December. A March vote was delayed, as Cannabis Wire previously reported.
Ahead of Thursday’s meeting, starting in late June and ending this week, three informal topical meetings on the recommendations were organized by the Commission.
The United States delegate, Patt Prugh, an attorney-adviser in the U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Legal Adviser, spoke about how her colleagues had asked for clarity from the WHO and turned to the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) and the UNODC for guidance, “until COVID-19 sent us home.” Prugh spent much of her time speaking about how cannabis should be removed from Schedule IV, the most restrictive, on the basis of medical value.
“There are two distinct camps that seem to be emerging. Those whose national policies favor more restrictive drug control approaches and those favoring more more permissive controls. This division is an artificial one and it’s an unhelpful one,” Prugh said, adding that Nora Volkow, director of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse, spoke to delegates earlier this week. Prugh also mentioned GW Pharmaceuticals’ Epidiolex, approved by the Food and Drug Administration for severe seizure disorders in 2018. Epidiolex, which contains mostly CBD, is the first medicine derived directly from cannabis plants to be approved by the FDA.
“This newfound therapeutic usefulness, which is not possessed by other substances, warrants the removal of cannabis from Schedule IV. Nonetheless, we heard voices ask ‘why? Why should we remove cannabis from Schedule IV?’ And here the answer is fairly straightforward, because that is our responsibility under the Single Convention,” Prugh said.
Prugh also focused on the body’s “duty” to ensure that the international scheduling of cannabis and cannabis resin “accurately reflects the state of science,” adding that one main reason that cannabis should be moved is to “stimulate research.”
“You are particularly at risk that keeping cannabis and cannabis resin in Schedule IV, despite scientific evidence, will signal that the Commission is tone deaf and out of touch. And they will ask: ‘why? Why do we need a Commission on Narcotic Drugs? Why do we need a scheduling process if all they do is make drugs even less accessible to those in pain and suffering?’” Prugh said.
After a Supreme Court ruling, lawmakers in Mexico are expected to take up adult use legalization when the legislature reconvenes, as Cannabis Wire has reported. While the Supreme Court has been pushing back the deadline for lawmakers to enact this policy change, it is now due on December 15.
“We must strive to achieve a more just and humane policy under the new times and realities. There is no doubt we live in a different world than in 1961, and that’s why we feel that this critical exercise is of the most importance,” the delegate from Mexico said. “We would like to remind everybody listening to this session that the inclusion of the plant in the Conventions in 1961 were not preceded by a careful analysis.”
The representative of the European Union began by reiterating that the EU and its member states were ready to vote in March, though how the EU would vote was not stated. As Cannabis Wire recently reported, pilot programs are popping up across Europe for both medical and adult use.
“One of the elements we would like to stress is that, in our opinion, these recommendations do not aim at and should not be seen as a step towards the liberalization of the use of cannabis, or as minimizing the risks and dangers it represents for our societies,” he said.
“The EU and its member states strongly believe that the right time has come to vote on the WHO recommendations at the reconvened 63rd Session of the CND in December this year, thus respecting the commitment we collectively made last March and preserving the integrity of the international scheduling system, as well as supporting scientific progress.”
Many of the countries that have already expressed opposition along the way remain opposed, such as Russia, China, and Iran.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the name of the US delegate.