For the first time in history, the United Nations will loosen its position on cannabis, recognizing its therapeutic uses.
On December 2, during its reconvened 63rd Session in Vienna, Austria, the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs held a vote on World Health Organization recommendations that have placed the debate over cannabis as medicine under a global spotlight.
The most significant recommendation, and the only one of six approved, suggested that cannabis be rescheduled in such a way that it is considered a medicine. The vote was narrow, 27-25, with one abstention. The Russian Federation pushed 15 member states to argue against any changes to the global “regulatory framework,” as it would “lead to confusion.” The United States, meanwhile, had already recently signaled that it would support this recommendation.
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.)
Drug policy reform advocates argue that while this vote was significant, it does not go far enough.
“The vote today will further accelerate the growing global medical cannabis market and facilitate more research,” Ann Fordham, Executive Director of the International Drug Policy Consortium, told Cannabis Wire. Fordham added that it “may also help to shift perceptions about cannabis and how strictly it needs to be controlled.”
However, Fordham continued, that cannabis remains in Schedule I is “problematic,” as the “original decision to place it under such strict control was not based on scientific evidence but on racist attitudes – something we have to challenge today.”
The Commission voted against the WHO’s remaining recommendations.
One significant recommendation related to “cannabidiol preparations,” or CBD. The WHO already took a position in 2018 that pure CBD doesn’t warrant regulation. This latest recommendation was 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.”
This would have created some confusion around the fate of CBD. For example, cannabis “extracts” would remain under control, and some argue that CBD products extracted from cannabis count as “extracts.”
Member states have discussed and debated these recommendations on cannabis and its derivatives since the WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence put them forth in January 2019, and the vote had been postponed twice.
After a vote in March was delayed, the Commission organized informal topical meetings, the last of which was held in October.
During that meeting, the United States delegate, Patt Prugh, an attorney-adviser in the U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Legal Adviser, emphasized how important it is that the international scheduling of cannabis and cannabis resin “accurately reflects the state of science.” She added that cannabis should be rescheduled, among other reasons, 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.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include original comment from Ann Fordham.