For the first time ever, a World Health Organization (WHO) committee is reviewing marijuana’s status under international law. And technical documents the committee recently released include several positive, evidentiary findings about the plant’s medical value.
The committee’s pre-review—which will be formally unveiled at its meeting next week—could ultimately go on to influence international drug policy, as well as the classification of cannabis under the laws of individual nations.
The moves by the WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) come about a month after the United States government requested public input on marijuana scheduling at the international level. That resulted in the submission of more than 17,000 comments that the Food and Drug Administration indicated would be used to inform the U.S.’s response and recommendations to WHO, which is part of the United Nations.
In addition to reaffirming its earlier findings that CBD is a low-risk cannabinoid that provides demonstrably positive health benefits for patients in a critical review, WHO’s new documents also look at the science of marijuana overall and examined cannabis tinctures and extracts, THC and THC isomers.
Here’s what the committee found
In terms of the potential risks of marijuana use, the committee first acknowledged that nobody has ever died from an acute marijuana overdose and described cannabis as a “relatively safe drug.”
Research indicating that marijuana use was associated with a greater risk of adverse cardiovascular events “appears at best to be weak,” the committee wrote.
Notably, the committee also cited a “wealth of preclinical literature” that shows cannabinoids “reduce cancer cell proliferation” and inhibit “cancer cell migration and angiogenesis in numerous cancer cell types.”
The therapeutic benefits of cannabis
Getting into medical properties, the committee’s pre-review examined several health conditions that often qualify patients for medical marijuana in jurisdictions that have legalized it. Those conditions include: appetite stimulation, chronic pain, epilepsy, neuropathic pain, opioid withdrawal, post-traumatic stress disorder and sleep disorders.
The committee’s review of existing scientific literature on the effectiveness of cannabis treatment for these and other conditions found evidence that cannabinoids reduce pain, promote sleep and improve motor function for individuals with Parkinson’s disease. However, one common theme in the pre-review was that not enough clinical research had been conducted for the committee to make a determination about the potential health benefits of cannabis for multiple conditions.
Michael Krawitz, a U.S. Air Force veteran and legalization activist who has worked for years to reform international treaties on marijuana, told Marijuana Moment that the evidence about marijuana’s medical benefits included in the review was insufficient. He said it was reflective of the “creeping slow nature of the international bodies,” which have not viewed marijuana reform as “a priority.”
“Why did it take so long?” Krawitz said. “Why is it 2018 and they’re just now reviewing a treaty that should have been reviewed in the ‘70s or the ‘80s or the ‘90s?”
In some respects, the research situation is a bit of a catch-22. Part of the reason for the lack of clinical research into marijuana is that it’s prohibited under international treaties, which bar United Nations (UN) member states from legalizing cannabis for non-medical or scientific reasons.
“Often, the U.S. government hid behind its obligations under the Single Convention to avoid expanding research into illicit substances, even as scientific and medical exceptions to prohibition were explicitly spelled out in the U.N. treaty for marijuana and other drugs,” the Brookings Institution’s John Hudak explained.
The last section of the new pre-review deals with the epidemiology of marijuana. While recognizing that cannabis “has some therapeutic potential,” the review also raised concerns about several short-term and long-term effects of use, which “may be relevant to public health.”
The acute effects, according to the commission, include “[c]ognitive effects including impaired short-term memory, altered judgement and impaired motor coordination, which increase the risk of injuries (best studied with traffic injuries under the influence of cannabis, where causality has been established despite some negative epidemiological results)” and “altered judgement,” which “may also lead to problematic decisions with respect to increasing risk of sexually transmitted diseases.”
The committee determined that heavy, frequent use was also associated with “[i]mpairment of the brain (especially of the adolescent brain),” “[p]oor educational outcome and partially lasting cognitive impairments, with increased likelihood of dropping out of school” and “[i]ncreased risk of chronic psychosis disorders (including schizophrenia) in persons with a predisposition to such disorders.”
Why this pre-review matters
Reform advocates hope that the pre-review will be accepted and there will be a subsequent call for a more in-depth critical review. That would involve a deliberative process allowing experts to provide the committee with new information before a final recommendation on cannabis’s status would be made to UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
Guterres is a supporter of broad drug policy reform. As Portugal’s prime minister, he oversaw the enactment of a law decriminalizing marijuana and other drugs. In a March speech before the UN’s drug policy body, he touted the success of that policy.
Krawitz said an ideal outcome of the current review would be a committee recommendation to remove cannabis from the international treaty’s list of schedule 4 drugs, which could ultimately free up member states to push ahead with their own reform efforts.
Massachusetts Lawmakers Discuss Drug Decriminalization And Safe Injection Sites At Hearing
Massachusetts lawmakers on Monday heard testimony on separate proposals to decriminalize drug possession and establish a pilot program for safe injection facilities where people could use illicit substances in a medically supervised environment to prevent overdose deaths and facilitate treatment.
The state legislature’s Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery held a hearing on the harm reduction proposals, with experts and people personally impacted by substance misuse advocating for new approaches to drugs that destigmatize addiction and offer people resources outside of a criminal justice context.
The decriminalization bill would replace criminal penalties for the possession of any controlled substance with a civil fine of up to $50. To avoid the fine, individuals could enroll in a “needs screening to identify health and other service needs, including but not limited to services that may address any problematic substance use and mental health conditions, lack of employment, housing, or food, and any need for civil legal services.”
For the safe injection site legislation, the state would establish a 10-year pilot program where at least two facilities would “utilize harm reduction tools, including clinical monitoring of the consumption of pre-obtained controlled substances in the presence of trained staff, for the purpose of reducing the risks of disease transmission and preventing overdose deaths.”
A separate, less far-reaching bill that was added to the agenda in a late addition would direct the Department of Public Health to simply “evaluate the feasibility” of safe consumption sites and then report back to lawmakers by July 31, 2022..
The joint committee listened to academics, health professionals, lawmakers discuss the reform proposals but did not take immediate action on any of the legislation. It’s unclear when the bills will be taken up again for further consideration.
“By every metric, the war on drugs has been a catastrophic failure,” Rep. Mike Connolly (D) said. “In the United States and here in Massachusetts, the criminalization of drug possession is a major driver of mass incarceration. We know that black people have been incarcerated at a rate eight times higher than white people, and there’s no question that the criminalization of substance use issues has contributed to these terrible disparities.”
Connolly is also the sponsor of legislation that received a Joint Judiciary Committee hearing in July on studying the implications of legalizing psychedelics like psilocybin and ayahuasca.
Officials with at least one Massachusetts city, Somerville, said that there are plans in the work to launch a safe injection facility in the jurisdiction. And they want to see the statewide bill pass to provide additional protections against being federally penalized.
“State legislation, wielding its constitutionally granted powers to enact laws for public health and safety, has the ability to greatly minimize these risks through legislation authorizing a pilot of safe consumption sites,” Hannah Pappenheim, assistant city solicitor at the City of Somerville, said. “In addition, state legislation would also minimize the risk of costly—but more importantly, lengthy—litigation.”
The official noted that a separate, Pennsylvania-based case on the legality of safe injection sites has been ongoing in federal courts for years at this point.
A coalition of 80 current and former prosecutors and law enforcement officials—including one who is President Joe Biden’s pick for U.S. attorney of Massachusetts—recently filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to take up the case.
Xavier Bacerra, the Biden administration’s secretary of health and human services, was among eight top state law enforcement officials who filed an earlier amicus brief in support of the Philadelphia-based Safehouse’s safe injection site plan when he served as California’s attorney general.
“State legislation paves the way for a more expedient process in Somerville, and of course elsewhere in the Commonwealth,” Pappenheim said.
Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone (D) said at Monday’s hearing that “it’s important for Massachusetts to finally lead—not just compiling, but implementing a strategy that reduces harm and save lives.” He conceded that he previously opposed the concept of allowing safe consumption sites; but his personal experience knowing people in his immediate family who suffered from addiction—as well as his own review of the scientific literature on harm reduction alternatives to criminalization—led him to embrace the reforms.
Massachusetts lawmakers advanced similar legislation last year, but it was not ultimately enacted.
The governor of neighboring Rhode Island signed a bill in July to establish a safe consumption site pilot program where people could test and use currently illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment. It became the first state in the country to legalize the harm reduction centers. It’s not clear whether the Department of Justice will seek to intervene to prevent the opening of such facilities in that state.
Oamshri Amarasingham, deputy legislative director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, voiced support for both reform proposals at Monday’s hearing and told WGBH that establishing a safe injection site pilot program “is one piece of that puzzle” that is “critically important and that’s had great success in other countries.”
The ACLU has long supported shifting to a #PublicHealth approach to drug policy rather than a criminal one…
— ACLU Massachusetts (@ACLU_Mass) September 27, 2021
Shaleen Title, a former Massachusetts cannabis commissioner who now heads the Parabola Center, juxtaposed how laws handle substances like caffeine, alcohol and nicotine differently from currently illegal drugs.
“What separates that from when we have these illicit drugs, where handcuffs and cages are involved, and what led that to be? The reason has nothing to do with science, or evidence or the relative dangers of those drugs,” she said. “The reason is because—and this is well-documented—those drugs could be scapegoated and blamed on their association with indigenous and Indian and Mexican and Chinese and other cultures, and then used to target communities of color, particularly black and Latino people nationally and here in Massachusetts.”
At the same time that Massachusetts legislators are looking into harm reduction and broad drug decriminalization, local activists in the state have also been pursuing psychedelics reform.
Three Massachusetts cities—Northampton, Somerville and Cambridge—have each passed resolutions to deprioritize enforcement of laws against the possession, use and distribution of a wide range of psychedelics and other drugs. The Easthampton City Council is also exploring a resolution to decriminalize a wide range of entheogenic substances, with a meeting set for Friday.
Marijuana Arrests Dropped Sharply In 2020 As Both COVID And Legalization Spread, FBI Data Shows
Marijuana arrests declined significantly in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic, newly released FBI data shows.
There were 1,155,610 drug-related arrests overall last year, with cannabis sales and possession busts accounting for just over 30 percent (or 350,150) of those cases. The vast majority were for marijuana possession alone.
The agency’s data shows that there was a cannabis arrest every 90 seconds in the country in 2020, and there was a drug-related arrest every 27 seconds.
While these figures still highlight the rampant, ongoing criminalization of cannabis in states across the U.S., it’s a substantial deescalation compared to 2019, when FBI reported a total of 545,601 marijuana arrests. That amounted to a cannabis bust every 58 seconds.
Put another way, there was a 36 percent decrease in cannabis cases from 2019 to 2020. And while the federal agency doesn’t attempt to explain the statistical shift, there are a number of factors that could help explain it.
One of the more obvious societal changes during that timeframe is the COVID-19 health crisis, which involved social distancing requirements and generally discouraged people from being out in public where they might be at higher risk of being arrested for simple possession.
But advocates have also pointed out that the marijuana reform movement could be playing a role. Illinois’s adult-use cannabis law took effect at the beginning of 2020, for example. Hawaii, New Mexico and North Dakota also enacted decriminalization of marijuana possession in 2019, and Virginia followed suit the next year.
In Arizona, limited cannabis possession was legalized for adults starting on November 30, 2020 following voter approval of a reform initiative earlier that month.
“As more states move toward the sensible policy of legalizing and regulating cannabis, we are seeing a decline in the arrest of non-violent marijuana consumers nationwide,” NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri told Marijuana Moment. “The fight for legalization is a fight for justice. While these numbers represent a historic decline in arrests, even one person being put into handcuffs for the simple possession of marijuana is too many.”
Despite the decline in cannabis busts, the new data shows that American law enforcement still carried out more arrests for marijuana alone last year than for murder, rape, robbery, burglary, fraud and embezzlement combined.
It should be noted that not all local police participate in FBI’s reporting program, so these figures are not holistic and are estimates the agency makes based on those that do submit data.
The country had seen a consistent decline in cannabis arrests for roughly a decade prior to 2016, when those cases started to rise up until 2019.
Observers expect to see the downward trend in cannabis busts continue as more states move to end prohibition and law enforcement deprioritizes marijuana-relate cases. In New York, for example, police received new guidance this year stipulating that adults 21 and older can possess certain amounts of marijuana and consume it in places where tobacco use is permitted.
That directive alone seems to have led to a dramatic decrease in cannabis arrests in New York City.
Federal marijuana trafficking cases also continued to decline in 2020 as more states have moved to legalize, an analysis from the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) that was released in June found.
Federal prosecutions of drug-related crimes overall increased in 2019, but cases involving marijuana dropped by more than a quarter, according to an end-of-year report released by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in December.
A study released by the Cato Institute in 2018 found that “state-level marijuana legalization has significantly undercut marijuana smuggling.”
New York Governor Says Marijuana Legalization Will Create ‘Thousands’ Of Jobs And Touts Regulatory Appointments
The governor of New York says marijuana legalization will generate “thousands and thousands of jobs” in the state, and she’s touting her recent actions to make regulatory appointments for the industry to get implementation underway.
At the Business Council of New York State’s annual meeting on Friday, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) talked about the state’s business ethic and the importance of supporting markets of all sizes, including cannabis companies.
“We do want to go big or go home, and I want to help you get there,” she said. “I need you to survive because you’re the identity of New York that people create jobs and opportunities. You are who we are as New Yorkers. Your success means the success of this entire state.”
“So count me in as an ally—someone who’s going to be there for you, who will fight for you to make sure that we do not lose out to any competition, whether it’s in the space of cannabis, where I believe there’s thousands and thousands of jobs and new industries, to be created that were not even focused on,” Hochul said.
The governor has made a point of emphasizing her support for adult-use legalization and standing up the industry since replacing former Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who resigned amid a sexual misconduct scandal last month.
At Friday’s meeting, she said, “I had to unleash this opportunity that had been stifled for the first five months [after legalization was signed into law] because a few appointments hadn’t been made. Got that done.”
Hochul named two additional Cannabis Control Board members last week, which followed the Senate confirmation of previous appointees earlier this month. The newly named regulators do not require confirmation by lawmakers.
According to The New York Post, the governor reportedly recently dismissed Norman Birenbaum, director of cannabis programs under Cuomo, whom advocates had opposed becoming the head of the new Office of Cannabis Management.
Under New York’s legalization law, the independent Office of Cannabis Management within the New York State Liquor Authority was established and will be responsible for regulating the recreational cannabis market as well as the existing medical marijuana and hemp programs. It will be overseen by a five-member Cannabis Control Board.
Three members have now been appointed by the governor, and the Senate and Assembly have also appointed one member each.
As it stands, adults 21 and older can possess up to three ounces of cannabis or 24 grams of concentrates in New York—and they can also smoke marijuana in public anywhere tobacco can be smoked—but there aren’t any shops open for business yet.
The first recreational marijuana retailers in New York may actually be located on Indian territory, with one tribe officially opening applications for prospective licensees earlier this month.
In July, a New York senator filed a bill to create a provisional marijuana licensing category so that farmers could begin cultivating and selling cannabis ahead of the formal rollout of the adult-use program. The bill has been referred to the Senate Rules Committee.
Because the implementation process has been drawn out, however, one GOP senator wants to give local jurisdictions another year to decide whether they will opt out of allowing marijuana businesses to operate in their area—a proposal that advocates say is unnecessary and would create undue complications for the industry.
Under the law as enacted, municipalities must determine whether they will opt out of permitting marijuana retailers or social consumption sites by December 31, 2021. Sen. George Borrello (R) introduced legislation earlier this month that would push that deadline back one year.
Legalization activists aren’t buying the argument, however.
Adding pressure to get the market up and running is the fact that regulators in neighboring New Jersey recently released rules for its adult-use marijuana program, which is being implemented after voters approved a legalization referendum last year.
For the first year of cannabis sales, the state is expected to see just $20 million in tax and fee collections. That will be part of an estimated $26.7 billion in new revenues that New York is expected to generate in fiscal year 2021-2022 under a budget that the legislature passed in April.
Meanwhile, a New York lawmaker introduced a bill in June that would require the state to establish an institute to research the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.