In December, the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs will hold a vote that could reshape the future of cannabis as medicine across the globe.
The vote will focus on recommendations made by the World Health Organization in January 2019 that cannabis be rescheduled in such a way that it is considered a medicine. Since then, as Cannabis Wire has reported, member states have discussed and debated these recommendations, and they even called for a delay of the vote when it was last expected in March.
During a keynote presentation at the International Cannabis Bar Association’s Cannabis Law Institute, Pavel Pachta, the former Deputy Secretary of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), spoke at length about the road to this vote. The INCB is an independent entity that was formed in 1968 to monitor the implementation of the United Nations’ global drug control treaties.
Pachta began by outlining the different markets for the cannabis plant, including pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, cosmetics, and industrial uses.
“These are different markets, different areas,” he said. “To navigate is not easy, nationally, especially in a country like yours, when you have so many states and so many differences between various states, and even more internationally, if you will go globally from country to country. Then the situation will become even more complicated.”
There are three international drug control treaties, one of which is particularly key to the control of cannabis: the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, which, Pachta noted, focuses primarily on three plants. “The cannabis plant, the coca bush, and opium poppy,” he said.
Then came the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971. Why another convention?
“It was because in the 1960s there were problems with dependency-producing substances like barbiturates, amphetamines, and some hallucinogens. Governments were saying, no, it’s not good to place them under control of the Single Convention,” he said. “So, another convention was adopted.”
Then, in order to “take measures against illicit trafficking,” there came the Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988, which contains, for example, language around “cooperation among governments against money laundering.”
In sum, the goal of these Conventions is to limit the manufacture and trade of these substances to medical and scientific purposes.
While people often criticize the Conventions for being “old” or “obsolete,” Pachta said, realistically, the Conventions “will not disappear in a couple of years or next year … they will stay with us.”
The popularity of CBD has complicated things for regulators and lawmakers across the globe. Of the dozens of cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, Pachta noted that only THC is under international control. But, the 1961 Convention specifically controls cannabis “extracts.”
“And, of course,” Pachta said, “some people may say if you are producing CBD from cannabis, then you are extracting it from cannabis. You are, in fact, making cannabis ‘extracts.’”
Then there is Article 28, paragraph two, which reads: “This Convention shall not apply to the cultivation of the cannabis plant exclusively for industrial purposes (fibre and seed) or horticultural purposes.”
“The question is,” Pachta said, “may the cannabis plant be cultivated for the industrial extraction of CBD or other cannabinoids? You’ll get different answers, different interpretations, of this old provision of the convention.”
Some governments have interpreted this section to mean that “fibre and seed” are examples of potential uses, while other governments have interpreted it to mean that only those uses are allowed. The INCB’s interpretation, with which Pachta said he disagrees, is that the cultivation of cannabis for CBD is not allowed.
“Of course, at the time, it was not a problem. Nobody in 1961 had an idea that somebody will be extracting CBD from cannabis,” Pachta added.
Then, Pachta turned to “the road to change,” which began with the WHO’s announcement in 2016 that it would review the status of cannabis and its derivatives. Pachta said that, at the time, he was working with the US-based medical cannabis advocacy group Americans for Safe Access on the document that would ultimately be sent to the WHO to inform its recommendations.
While the WHO concluded that CBD does not need to be under international control, as it does not lead to dependence, Pachta noted that the WHO still maintained that CBD extracted from cannabis is considered a cannabis “extract” and therefore would be controlled. This would mean that only synthetic CBD would not be controlled.
“Frankly, I do not understand it too much,” Pachta said, “But we have to live with that.”
But, Pachta said, another recommendation might resolve this. One WHO recommendation is to add a note under the cannabis and cannabis resin entry under Schedule I that reads: “Preparations containing predominantly cannabidiol and not more than 0,2% of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol are not under international control.”
“I think WHO is trying to do something with the mess they caused by saying that CBD obtained by extraction from cannabis is a narcotic drug,” Pachta said. “They want to resolve this mess a bit by this kind of recommendation.”
Another significant recommendation, Pachta said, as it would remove the “stigma” of cannabis as a “dangerous drug” is the WHO recommendation to remove cannabis from Schedule 4, leaving it only in Schedule 1. Currently, cannabis and cannabis resin are on both Schedule IV and Schedule I of the 1961 Convention. Schedule IV, the most restrictive, is for substances with little or no medical value. (This is the opposite of the US scheduling system, in which Schedule I is the most restrictive.)
Pachta described most of the other recommendations as “technical” and “improvement in the logic of international drug control.”
Next, the conversation turned to whether these recommendations are likely to be adopted in December. “The world is very much divided,” Pachta said.
The group of countries that wants to maintain the status of cannabis as a dangerous drug with no medical value includes Russia, China, Iran, and dozens of others.
Pachta sees two recommendations getting adopted: the removal of cannabis from Schedule 4, which, as Cannabis Wire previously reported, the United States supports, and the “technical” recommendation of removing cannabis extracts and tinctures from Schedule 1.
Earlier this month, 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.
“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,” said Patt Prugh, an attorney-adviser in the U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Legal Adviser, and the delegate representing the U.S.
Prugh added that “keeping cannabis and cannabis resin in Schedule IV, despite scientific evidence, will signal that the Commission is tone deaf and out of touch.”
Pachta’s keynote wrapped with a focus on the legalization of cannabis for non-medical purposes. In short, there is little global consensus on that step. There are options for countries that choose to legalize, Pachta said, including the crafting of agreements between those countries. In this way, those countries who choose to not comply with the cannabis language in the Conventions could work together on their approach to cannabis while still agreeing to other global drug control measures. This, Pachta said, is “very important to preserve the credibility of the international drug control system.”