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.
Bernie Sanders Talks Marijuana With Killer Mike, Danny Glover And Ben & Jerry’s Founder
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) led a panel during a presidential campaign stop in North Carolina on Friday where he and surrogates—rapper Killer Mike, actor Danny Glover and Ben & Jerry’s founder Ben Cohen—discussed marijuana reform.
At one point, Cohen said that he was arrested after being caught smoking cannabis while he was in school but the police only charged him for littering—a discretionary decision that he said he likely wouldn’t have been afforded if he was black. He speculated that without that privilege, the incident could have cost him loans that allowed him to build his ice cream empire.
Sanders, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, opened the conversation by asking Killer Mike to weigh in on the impact of the drug war, particularly on communities of color.
The artist said the “war on drugs, we now know from history, has been a tremendous failure” and that it “was never a war on drugs, it was a war on progressive white kids and black people.”
He discussed the racist origins of prohibition, the role cannabis criminalization has played in mass incarceration and emphasized the need to include restorative justice in a legal marijuana system.
“But we have a greater opportunity, and the greater opportunity is this: marijuana is going to be legal in our lifetime,” he said. “Beyond getting a little stoned in the morning, which I didn’t do this morning because I knew I had to come see you guys, marijuana provides through hemp paper, alternative to plastics, it provides jobs, resources, dispensaries.”
Watch the conversation about cannabis, starting at about 11:20 into the video below:
“We have an opportunity this time to take the people that are exiting jail, have expunged records and creating a pathway as wide as this aisle directly to legal marijuana and creating economic sustainability in the same communities that were robbed of that opportunity,” he said.
“As for me and my stoner friends, we’ll be buying Ben & Jerry’s and voting for Bernard Sanders.”
Glover joked that Mike’s plan is the “real green new deal that we need right here,” riffing off the name of climate change agenda backed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).
“What we’re talking about now is repairing the wrongs that were done on our communities, and we have a senator who’s going to be the president, who’s saying that we’re not only going to repair the wrongs of the war on drugs but we are going to bring back an era that we are organizing in our communities,” the actor said.
Cohen highlighted racial inequities in marijuana enforcement and broader societal structures, starting by noting that his parents were only able to enter the middle class with the help of a government program providing low-interest mortgages that black people were not entitled to. That program allowed him to go to a good school, he said, where he got busted for cannabis at one point.
“In the midst of getting my higher education, one summer I was smoking some pot with some friends on a beach and the cops caught us,” he said. “We were handcuffed and they took us to the station and they ended up giving us a ticket for littering a lighted cigarette butt on the ground.”
“But I am well aware that if I was black, I would’ve ended up with a criminal record that would have prevented me from getting the loans that we needed to start Ben & Jerry’s,” he said. “It’s really clear to me that if I was black, there wouldn’t have been a Ben & Jerry’s. I’m conscious of that, I think about that, and that’s one of the big reasons I’m supporting Bernie because he’s going to put an end to that system.”
The criminalization of marijuana has been a disaster for communities of color.
We will legalize marijuana, expunge past convictions and invest revenue from legal marijuana back into those communities. pic.twitter.com/x7xrzw1Eu4
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) September 21, 2019
Sanders closed the panel discussion by asking audience members to raise their hands if they knew someone arrested for marijuana, or were themselves arrested. He did a similar exercise at a campaign rally in South Carolina earlier this week.
After hands shot up, the senator said “this is what the war on drugs has done in this country.”
“It has criminalized so many people in this room. This is amazing,” he said. “The war on drugs has been incredibly destructive for millions and millions of people in this country and we’re going to end that war on drugs and we’re going to make marijuana legal.”
Photo courtesy of Facebook/Bernie Sanders.
Former Federal Prosecutor’s Marijuana Legalization Measure Advances In South Dakota
A measure to legalize marijuana in South Dakota—introduced by a former federal prosecutor and backed by a leading national cannabis advocacy group—was recently cleared for signature gathering.
Brendan Johnson, who served as the U.S. Attorney for the District of South Dakota and whose father represented the state in the U.S. Senate until 2015, filed the initiative in June. It received an official explanatory statement from the attorney general last month and its backers were given the green light to start collecting signatures last week.
“We are excited to move forward with these ballot initiative campaigns,” Johnson told Marijuana Moment. “South Dakota voters are ready to approve both medical marijuana and legalization at the ballot box next year.”
The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) is supporting the proposed constitutional amendment, as well as a separate statutory initiative to legalize medical cannabis in the state that was approved for signature collection last month.
The former federal prosecutor’s measure, which is being steered by the committee South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, would allow adults 21 and older to possess and distribute up to one ounce of marijuana. Individuals would also be allowed to cultivate up to three cannabis plants. The South Dakota Department of Revenue would be tasked with issuing licenses for manufacturers, testing facilities and retailers.
Sales would be taxed at 15 percent under the initiative, and revenue would be used to fund the program’s implementation, with additional monies going toward public education and the state general fund.
Beside legalizing marijuana, the amendment would also instruct the legislature to enact legislation to legalize hemp and medical cannabis. If the separate statutory medical marijuana legalization initiative, being coordinated by the group New Approach South Dakota, qualifies and passes as well, that latter requirement wouldn’t be necessary.
“The Marijuana Policy Project strongly supports the South Dakota campaign,” MPP Deputy Director Matthew Schweich, who led the organization’s efforts in support of previous legalization campaigns in Maine, Massachusetts and Michigan, told Marijuana Moment. “Across the country, and even in conservative states, voters are demanding marijuana policy reform. Our goal is simple: to effectuate the will of the people when elected officials choose to ignore it.”
Petitioners for the proposed constitutional amendment must collect 33,921 valid signatures from voters to qualify for the 2020 ballot. For statutory initiatives, 16,961 signatures are required. MPP’s involvement will likely bolster the campaign’s prospects of meeting that goal.
It’s already clear that marijuana reform measures are going to face resistance from certain quarters, with Gov. Kristi Noem (R) vetoing a hemp legalization bill in March and the state’s Republican party urging residents not to sign ballot petitions.
“Our campaign, South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, will be working from now until Election Day 2020 to earn the support of South Dakotans from every corner of the state,” Johnson said.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.
Cory Booker Pledges To Back Only Marijuana Bills With Justice Focus As Banking Vote Approaches
With a vote on marijuana banking issues imminent in the House, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) emphasized on Friday that he will not support cannabis legislation that doesn’t include restorative justice components.
In a tweet that linked to an earlier Marijuana Moment article on his cannabis stance, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate wrote that “any marijuana legislation moving through Congress must include restorative justice for those most harmed by the War on Drugs in order to get my vote.”
As I said earlier this year, any marijuana legislation moving through Congress must include restorative justice for those most harmed by the War on Drugs in order to get my vote.https://t.co/Y1dOwgHbm2
— Sen. Cory Booker (@SenBooker) September 20, 2019
The statement comes at a critical moment in the marijuana reform movement. House leadership announced on Friday that the first full floor vote on a standalone piece of cannabis reform legislation—a bill to protect banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators—will be held next week. But that development has also created controversy, with several advocacy groups arguing that a vote should be postponed until more wide-ranging reform legislation is passed.
Although Booker didn’t directly reference the banking bill his his tweet, its timing seemed to suggest that he sides with those groups—which include the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and Drug Policy Alliance—and that he wouldn’t support the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act as written.
Booker’s Senate press secretary confirmed to Marijuana Moment in an email that his boss’s Twitter post was sent directly in reaction to the House banking news.
While some have made the case that the bill would help promote social equity by improving access to banking services for minority business owners, for example, others view the legislation as primarily benefiting large cannabis firms.
Throughout his campaign, the senator has emphasized the need for inclusive and comprehensive marijuana reform. He determined that a bill to protect state cannabis programs from federal intervention that he formerly cosponsored didn’t meet that standard and did not attach his name to the latest version.
“At this point it’s too obvious and urgent and unfair that we’re moving something on marijuana on the federal level and it doesn’t do something on restorative justice,” he told VICE in April. “I want that bill to have some acknowledgement of the savage injustices that the marijuana prohibition has done to communities.”
“I get very angry when people talk about legalizing marijuana and then give no light to how marijuana law enforcement was done in ways that fed upon poor communities—black and brown communities. This is a war on drugs that has not been a war on drugs—it’s been a war on people, and disproportionately poor people and disproportionately black and brown people.”
Booker also said that he wants to couple conversations about legalization with talk of expunging prior cannabis convictions “in the same breath.”
The senator’s potential future opposition to a House-passed cannabis banking bill could prove problematic as its supporters work to shepherd the legislation through a chamber where it already faces an uphill path under anti-marijuana Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and skepticism from other GOP lawmakers.
Photo courtesy of Senate Democrats.