In Historic First, United Nations Votes To Acknowledge Cannabis Has Therapeutic Potential

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 as a block 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. 

“We welcome the long overdue recognition that cannabis is a medicine. However, this reform alone is far from adequate given that cannabis remains incorrectly scheduled at the international level,” Ann Fordham, Executive Director of the International Drug Policy Consortium, said in a statement.

“The original decision to prohibit cannabis lacked scientific basis and was rooted in colonial prejudice and racism. It disregarded the rights and traditions of communities that have been growing and using cannabis for medicinal, therapeutic, religious, and cultural purposes for centuries and has led to millions being criminalised and incarcerated across the globe. The review process has been a missed opportunity to correct that historical error,” Fordham added. 

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. 

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