Global health experts at the United Nations are recommending that marijuana and its key components be formally rescheduled under international drug treaties.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is calling for whole-plant marijuana, as well as cannabis resin, to be removed from Schedule IV—the most restrictive category of a 1961 drug convention signed by countries from around the world.
The body also wants delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and its isomers to be completely removed from a separate 1971 drug treaty and instead added to Schedule I of the 1961 convention, according to a WHO document that has not yet been formally released but was circulated by cannabis reform advocates.
Marijuana and cannabis resin would also remain in Schedule I of the 1961 treaty—they are currently dual-designated in Schedules I and IV, with IV being reserved for those substances that are seen as particularly harmful with limited medical benefits. (That’s different from the U.S. federal system, under which Schedule I is where the supposedly most dangerous and restricted drugs—like marijuana, heroin and LSD—are classified.)
WHO is also moving to make clear that cannabidiol and CBD-focused preparations containing no more than 0.2 percent THC are “not under international control” at all. It had previously been the case that CBD wasn’t scheduled under the international conventions, but the new recommendation is to make that even more clear.
Cannabis extracts and tinctures would be removed from Schedule I of the 1961 treaty under the recommendations, and compounded pharmaceutical preparations containing THC would be placed in Schedule III of that convention.
The practical effects of the changes would be somewhat limited, in that they wouldn’t allow countries to legalize marijuana and still be in strict compliance with international treaties, but their political implications are hard to overstate.
Taken together, recommendations, if adopted, would represent a formal recognition that the world’s governing bodies have effectively been wrong about marijuana’s harms and therapeutic benefits for decades. WHO’s new position comes at a time when a growing number of countries are moving to reform their cannabis policies. As such, a shift at the UN could embolden additional nations to scale back or repeal their prohibition laws—even though legalization for non-medical or non-scientific reasons would still technically violate the global conventions.
“The placement of cannabis in the 1961 treaty, in the absence of scientific evidence, was a terrible injustice,” said Michael Krawitz, a U.S. Air Force veteran and legalization advocate who has pushed for international reforms. “Today the World Health Organization has gone a long way towards setting the record straight. “It is time for us all to support the World Health Organization’s recommendations and ensure politics don’t trump science.”
The WHO recommendations were initially expected to be released at a meeting in Vienna in December, but the announcement was delayed for unknown reasons. The proposals will next go before the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs, potentially as soon as March, where 53 member nations will have the opportunity to vote on accepting or rejecting them.
A number of countries that have historically opposed drug policy reforms, such as Russia and China, are expected to oppose the change in cannabis’s classification.
Other nations like Canada and Uruguay, which have legalize marijuana in contravention of the current treaties, are likely to back the reform, as are a number of European and South American nations that allow medical cannabis.
It is not clear how the U.S. will vote. While the country has historically pressured other nations not to reform their own marijuana policies, the reality of legalization in a growing number of U.S. states has made that kind of pressure increasingly untenable in recent years.
The Trump administration moved last year to revoke Obama-era prosecutorial guidance that generally urged non-intervention with local marijuana laws. But the president himself has voiced support for letting states set their own cannabis policies without interference, and attorney general nominee William Barr said during his confirmation hearing that he would not “go after” companies relying on the now-rescinded cannabis guidance.
Thus, it remains to be seen how the administration will direct its UN representative when it comes time to weigh in on the proposed changes to marijuana’s status under international law.
If the recommendation on CBD is adopted, however, it could potentially have far-reaching implications in the U.S. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that CBD does not meet the criteria for federal control—except for the fact that international treaties to which the U.S. is party could potentially be construed as requiring it.
“If treaty obligations do not require control of CBD, or if the international controls on CBD change in the future, this recommendation will need to be promptly revisited,” FDA wrote, adding that the U.S. scheduling placement of CBD should be “revisited promptly” if international treaty obligations changed. Under the clarification being recommended by WHO, no one would be able to argue that CBD is globally scheduled.
The WHO’s new cannabis rescheduling recommendations come in the form of a letter, dated January 24, from the Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the body’s director general, to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
Guterres was Portugal’s prime minister when the country enacted a policy of decriminalizing drug possession, a move he touted in a speech to the UN’s Commission on Narcotics Drugs last year.
Read the new WHO recommendations below:
WHO says reschedule marijuana by on Scribd
Head Of Top Federal Drug Agency Says It’s Time To Consider Decriminalization
The head of a top federal drug agency is criticizing the ongoing policy of criminalizing people for drug use and is suggesting that the government should instead consider a policy of decriminalization.
Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), penned an essay for the journal Health Affairs that’s titled “Addiction Should Be Treated, Not Penalized.” It lays out the case against incarcerating people over low-level drug offenses and looking at the issue as a public health matter.
While it stops short of explicitly endorsing decriminalization, Volkow says that the current system leads to disproportionate enforcement against communities of color and can actually increase the risk of overdose deaths.
“Drug use continues to be penalized, despite the fact that punishment does not ameliorate substance use disorders or related problems,” she said. “Imprisonment, whether for drug or other offenses, actually leads to much higher risk of drug overdose upon release.”
“We have known for decades that addiction is a medical condition—a treatable brain disorder—not a character flaw or a form of social deviance,” Volkow continued. “Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence supporting that position, drug addiction continues to be criminalized. The US must take a public health approach to drug addiction now, in the interest of both population well-being and health equity.”
The NIDA head pointed out how people of color have been “disproportionately harmed by decades of addressing drug use as a crime rather than as a matter of public health.” Citing disparities in how opioid criminalization has been enforced and laws punishing crack more harshly than powder cocaine, Volkow said these are examples of “racial discrimination that have long been associated with drug laws and their policing.”
What makes these admissions notable is the source from which they’re coming. While NIDA is known among advocates as a source of resistance to reforms such as ending marijuana prohibition, its director sides with them on the fundamental principle that substance misuse should not be criminalized.
“The damaging impacts of punishment for drug possession that disproportionately impact Black lives are wide ranging. Imprisonment leads to isolation, an exacerbating factor for drug misuse, addiction, and relapse,” the director said. “It also raises the risk of early death from a wide variety of causes.”
Volkow also said that beyond incarceration, merely being arrested for marijuana possession “can leave the individual with a criminal record that severely limits their future opportunities such as higher education and employment.” And that enforcement trend hurts black people more than white people despite comparable rates of consumption.
“This burden reinforces poverty by limiting upward mobility through impeded access to employment, housing, higher education, and eligibility to vote,” she said. “It also harms the health of the incarcerated, their non-incarcerated family members, and their communities.”
These statements ostensibly lend themselves to a harm reduction policy position in favor of decriminalization, but Volkow doesn’t specifically say that’s the route lawmakers should take. Instead, she says that research “is urgently needed to establish the effectiveness and impact of public health–based alternatives to criminalization, ranging from drug courts and other diversion programs to policies decriminalizing drug possession.”
To that end, NIDA is “redoubling its focus on vulnerabilities and progression of substance use and addiction in minority populations,” she said. “We are exploring research partnerships with state and local agencies and private health systems to develop ways to eliminate systemic barriers to addiction care.”
The agency is “also funding research on the effects of alternative models of regulating and decriminalizing drugs in parts of the world where such natural experiments are already occurring,” Volkow said, presumably referencing countries such as Portugal that have stopped criminalizing people over simple possession.
“People with substance use disorders need treatment, not punishment, and drug use disorders should be approached with a demand for high-quality care and with compassion for those affected,” she said. “With a will to achieve racial equity in delivering compassionate treatment and the ability to use science to guide us toward more equitable models of addressing addiction, I believe such a goal is achievable.”
While NIDA might not be widely considered a champion of progressive drug policy, its director has previously conceded that existing federal drug laws aren’t working.
In 2019, for example, she acknowledged that the Schedule I status of marijuana and other drugs makes it “very difficult” for researchers to study the benefits and risks of those substances.
“Indeed, the moment that a drug gets a Schedule I, which is done in order to protect the public so that they don’t get exposed to it, it makes research much harder,” Volkow said during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing. “This is because [researchers] actually have to through a registration process that is actually lengthy and cumbersome.”
She also discussed the potential benefits and risks of cannabis at a congressional hearing last year.
NIDA is also one of the main agencies behind a new development in federally sanctioned marijuana research. After requesting public input last year on a standard THC unit for cannabis studies, it announced last week that it had reached a determination to set the standard at five milligrams of THC per dosage.
Don’t Bring CBD Pet Shampoo Onto Military Bases, U.S. Air Force Warns
Don’t bring your dog’s CBD-infused shampoo on federal military bases, the U.S. Air Force reminded personnel in a recent blog post.
While hemp and its derivatives are federally legal—and a growing number of states have regulated marijuana markets—a Massachusetts base of the military branch emphasized that possessing or using cannabis products can result in disciplinary action.
“Hemp, CBD and traces of THC can be found in a number of products like shampoos, lotions, and lip balms that you can buy in the open market, but you can’t bring them onto the installation,” Tech. Sgt. Kyle Majorana said. “Even if it’s for your pet, it’s still illegal.”
Hemp, CBD & traces of THC can be found in a number of products like shampoos, lotions, & lip balms that you can buy in the open market, but you can’t bring them onto a federal installation. Even if it’s for your pet, it’s still illegal. #knowtheruleshttps://t.co/CqJWXR7XD7
— U.S. Air Force Materiel Command ✈️ (@HQ_AFMC) May 8, 2021
He stressed that the “line between state and federal laws begins and ends at our gates.”
While this notice specifically targeted one Air Force base, the message is consistent with past updates from the military division, which has gone out of its way to make its cannabis policy clear.
About one year after hemp was federally legalized, the Air Force sent out a notice that similarly warned against using CBD products that are commonly found on the market. The reason for the blanket ban, it said, is because those products may have trace amounts of THC that could show up in a drug test.
The Air Force said the previous year that it wants its members to be extra careful around “grandma’s miracle sticky buns” that might contain marijuana.
To that end, this new blog post is just the latest example of the military branch underscoring its enforcement priorities.
For military members, drug use and possession will have adverse career implications and administrative actions like loss of rank and pay,” Maj. Steven Vallarelli said. “If the case warrants more severe action, members could be subject to a court-martial, possibly resulting in a federal conviction.”
The policy also applies to non-members, the post says. There could be “security clearance implications” for civilian employees and contractors convicted of possessing marijuana, for example. And visitors at federal installations who bring cannabis could also be penalized.
“Our intent is always to protect, educate and inform the base community while maintaining good order and discipline,” Maj. Shane Watts said.
Several military divisions have taken steps to advise members about marijuana prohibition policies in recent years.
In 2019, the Department of Defense (DOD) announced a policy barring all active and reserve service members from using hemp products, including CBD.
The Navy issued an initial notice in 2018 informing ranks that they’re barred from using CBD and hemp products no matter their legality. Then in 2020 it released an update explaining why it enacted the rule change.
DOD more broadly reaffirmed that CBD is off limits to service members, regardless of the federal legalization of hemp and its derivatives, in earlier notices published last year.
The Coast Guard said that sailors can’t use marijuana or visit state-legal dispensaries.
And NASA, which is not part of the military, warned that CBD products could contain unauthorized THC concentrations that could cost employees their jobs if they fail a drug test.
A factor that could have influenced these policy updates is that the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration released guidance to federal agency drug program coordinators in 2019 that outlined concerns about THC turning up in CBD products and causing failed drug tests. The agency issued an updated warning late last year after several more states voted to legalize marijuana.
As military institutions continue to broadly ban cannabis for active service members, congressional lawmakers are pushing for marijuana reform when it comes to those who have served in the past.
A bipartisan bill reintroduced last month would federally legalize medical marijuana for military veterans, for example.
Lawmakers have also recently filed several pieces of legislation that would promote research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis for veterans.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
Nebraska Medical Marijuana Bill Will Go Before Full Legislature This Week
The Nebraska legislature is taking up a bill to legalize medical marijuana this week—the latest in a string of conservative states to consider the reform move recently.
Sen. Anna Wishart (D), sponsor of the legislation, announced that it will “be debated by the full legislature” on Wednesday.
Just heard, my bill to legalize medical cannabis, LB 474 will be debated by the full legislature on Wednesday, May 12 at 9am! Carrying the voices of Colton and all the patients who would benefit from this plant based medicine with me. 💚 pic.twitter.com/S7gZRyaJ45
— Senator Anna Wishart (@NebraskaAnna) May 7, 2021
The measure would allow patients with certain qualifying conditions to purchase and possess up to two and a half ounces of cannabis from licensed dispensaries. It would not allow patients to smoke marijuana, however.
While the bill originally would have generally allowed patients to access marijuana for any condition that the plant may treat, it was revised in committee to include a specific list of 17 qualifying conditions, including cancer, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain.
Passing in the GOP-controlled unicameral body is expected to be challenging, as lawmakers will likely have to overcome a filibuster with at least 33 votes for cloture. If they accomplish that, a vote could then take place to approve the reform bill itself.
But while the legislation as currently amended might prove to be difficult, it’s possible that legislators could accept additional changes and reach a compromise that makes the proposal more palatable to reform opponents.
“I think that proponents for medical cannabis are willing to see compromises on the bill if that means getting something done,” Jared Moffat, state campaigns manager for the national Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment.
Wishart and Sen. Adam Morfeld (D) have been consistent champions of cannabis reform, and while this bill is a fairly limited proposal to legalize medical marijuana, the pair announced in December that they’re working to put the question of legalization for adult use before voters in 2022.
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Their campaign—Nebraskans for Medical Cannabis—is separately collecting signatures for a medical cannabis legalization measure that they hope to place on the 2022 ballot as well.
The group qualified a measure to legalize medical marijuana for last year’s ballot. But the state Supreme Court shut it down following a single-subject challenge.
In the Judiciary hearing, Chairman Steve Lathrop (R) said that he voted in favor of the medical cannabis legalization bill partly because he feels it would be a better alternative compared to the measure that could be placed on the ballot.
If activists do collect enough signatures to qualify either the medical or recreational cannabis measure, they will still likely face a challenge at the polls, as midterms generally see lower turnout as compared to presidential election years.
That said, it’s possible that the continuing momentum for reform via the ballot could spur lawmakers to potentially pass medical cannabis legislation such as Wishart’s bill in the meantime.
Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) is an adamant opponent of marijuana reform, so it seems likely he would veto any medical cannabis bill that lawmakers sent to his desk. Overriding a gubernatorial veto would require 30 votes, meaning at least some members of his own party would have to move to reject the governor’s action.
Under last year’s blocked Nebraska medical cannabis initiative, physicians would have been able to recommend cannabis to patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions, and those patients would then have been allowed to possess, purchase and “discreetly” cultivate marijuana for personal use.
For what it’s worth, Nebraska’s attorney general said in an opinion in 2019 that efforts to legalize medical marijuana in the state would be preempted by federal law and “would be, therefore, unconstitutional.”
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.