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.
California Gov. Jerry Brown Keeps Saying Mean Things About Marijuana Consumers
During his two stints as California governor—between 1975 and 1983, and 2011 and next January, when he is termed out and may finally retire from almost 50 years of public life—Jerry Brown has become known for several character traits.
He is frugal, to the point of parsimony. He is attentive to issues that are way out there. He is concerned about climate change. And he cannot stop making negative, non-germane non sequiturs about marijuana, his state’s biggest cash crop.
In 2014, he suggested that neither California nor the United States could be a great economic power if marijuana was legalized, thanks to the shiftiness of “the potheads.”
“The world’s pretty dangerous, very competitive,” he said during an appearance on NBC’s Meet The Press. “I think we need to stay alert, if not 24 hours a day, more than some of the potheads might be able to put together.”
Giving his reasoning why he opposed marijuana legalization, he mused, “how many people can get stoned and still have a great state or a great nation?”
Now, in a New York Times profile published on Tuesday, while speaking on the subject of climate change, Brown reached deep into his pocket for a very off-topic cannabis-themed barb.
“We either do nothing and smoke marijuana because it’s legalized, or we put our shoulder to the plow and do everything we can,” he told the paper on a recent afternoon (one of 23 interviews he gave that same day, according to the Times). “I don’t know if I’m an optimist. I’m a realist.”
Links between recreational marijuana use and some vague “dumbing-down” of the populace are unfounded, and are reminiscent of the spurious, race-baiting tactics employed by former drug czar Harry Anslinger.
The source of Brown’s opprobrium towards marijuana is not immediately clear.
Before his election in 2010, Brown offered laconic yet incoherent reasoning for his adamant anti-legalization stance.
“You know, the number one drug on the street is marijuana. The cartels are increasingly taking over. This is a serious problem,” he told an interviewer with GQ.
(At the time, California had a thriving medical cannabis industry. Legalized marijuana was later found to compel drug-traffickers to exit trade in the drug and seek other forms of income.)
“I think it’s more prudent for California not to embrace a legalization strategy,” he added. “I don’t think fostering chemicals is a smart move.”
He declined to engage with the interviewer when asked if he’d support a policy of prohibiting alcohol.
Brown’s stance puts the 80-year-old at odds with most of his fellow California Democrats—chief among whom must be Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.
After opposing marijuana legalization in 2010, Newsom quickly hopped on board the cannabis bandwagon following Colorado and Washington’s votes to end cannabis prohibition in 2012, and was the most prominent political backer of 2016’s Prop. 64, which legalized recreational marijuana in California.
Newsom briefly mounted a bid for California governor a decade ago before he was boxed out by the better-funded and better-prepared elder statesman.
In recent years, Brown did eventually sign into law a package of bills that set up a regulated and taxed commercial cannabis industry in the state. But his outdated Reefer Madness views about people who consume marijuana seem to persist, if this week’s Times interview is any indication.
Photo courtesy of Bob Tilden.
Legalizing Psilocybin Could Be The Next Frontier In Drug Policy Reform After Marijuana
Drug policy reform isn’t likely to end with marijuana legalization—and if you’re wondering what the next step in the broader movement could be, it’s worth looking into psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms.”
Earlier this month, state- and city-level campaigns to change psilocybin laws made small advancements. Organizers in Denver submitted two initiatives to decriminalize the psychedelic compound, which would appear on a citywide ballot in May 2019 if both or either receive enough signatures.
And in Oregon, a measure that would legalize psilocybin-assisted treatment entered the signature gathering stage. That measure would appear on a state ballot in 2020 if the effort succeeds.
“We’re excited to gather signatures in support of establishing a community-based service framework, in which licensed providers, along with licensed producers of psilocybin mushrooms, can blaze new trails in Oregon in accordance with evolving practice standards,” psychotherapist Tom Eckert, who is a chief petitioner for the measure, said in a press release.
Though there’s still a lot of work to do on the marijuana reform front—and advocates haven’t exactly joined arms with the psilocybin movement yet—the efforts share several parallels. For example, both cannabis and psilocybin are federally banned as Schedule I drugs, meaning the government considers them to have a high potential for abuse and to be medically useless.
Research disputes that position for both substances. While an admittedly larger body of research has demonstrated various therapeutic benefits of marijuana, several studies have found compelling evidence that psilocybin can provide relief for individuals suffering from conditions such as depression and addiction—and research is ongoing.
“To be clear, there’s no scientific basis for psilocybin’s continued inclusion on Schedule I,” Angela Bacca, a strategist for the Psilocybin Service Initiative of Oregon, said. “It is imperative we change the law to match the reality and science because people are suffering who could otherwise benefit from this safe and uniquely effective service.”
Neither the Denver nor Oregon measures would create a legal retail system for psilocybin, as has been seen throughout the U.S. for marijuana. And in Denver, organizers submitted two separate decriminalization initiatives in order to test the waters, seeing if there’d be enough support to include cultivation in the language of their primary decriminalization measure.
If that initiative fails, the group Denver for Psilocybin will put their energy toward a similar initiative that simply decriminalizes low-level possession and personal use.
“It’s a natural right. It’s a human right,” Kevin Matthews, campaign director for Denver for Psilocybin, told Westword. “This one is our Hail Mary victory shot.”
Organizers in California recently attempted to get a psilocybin decriminalization initiative on the 2018 ballot, but that effort failed.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Mädi.
Beto O’Rourke Slams Drug War And Police Killing Of Botham Jean At Dallas Event
Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), who is running for U.S. Senate this year, spoke before an animated crowd at a Baptist church in Dallas on Friday, decrying the war on drugs and calling for the end of marijuana prohibition.
The candidate, who’s made a strong showing in his race against incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), also commented on the recent killing of an unarmed black man, Botham Jean, at the hands of a Texas police officer.
“How can it be in this day and age—in this very year, in this community—that a young man, African American, in his own apartment, is shot and killed by a police officer?” O’Rourke asked. “And when we all want justice and the facts and the information to make an informed decision, what is released to the public? That he had a small amount of marijuana in his kitchen? How can that be just in this country?”
“How can we continue to lose the lives of unarmed black men in the United States of America at the hands of white police officers? That is not justice. That is not us. That can and must change. Are you with me on this?”
The audience responded with a resounding standing ovation.
See O’Rourke’s marijuana and criminal justice comments roughly 31 minutes into his Facebook video below:
O’Rourke spent several minutes outlining how the drug war disproportionately impacts communities of color despite the fact that white people use and sell drugs at roughly the same rate.
“It has kept people out of civic life in this country, it has kept them from their freedoms, it has kept them from democratic life in this country.”
Resolving racially discriminatory drug enforcement efforts starts with ending cannabis prohibition, O’Rourke said, noting that he co-sponsored congressional legislation that would do just that. But importantly, the second step is to expunge “the arrest records for anyone arrested for possession of marijuana so they can get on with their lives, live to their full potential, contribute to their maximum capacity.”
One of the congressman’s most salient points contrasted marijuana policies in Texas and fully legal states like California.
“Let me ask you this: in a country where the majority of the states in the union have already decided to make marijuana legal in one form or another—where people in California and Colorado and the Northwest are getting filthy rich legally selling marijuana today—who is going to be the last African American boy or man to rot behind bars in Texas for something that’s legal in almost every other single part of the country?”
“Let’s lead the way on reforming our drug laws,” O’Rourke said. “Let’s end that war on drugs right now because it’s a war on people.”
Cruz has attempted to frame his opponent’s drug reform stance as dangerous, promoting misleading statements attributed to O’Rourke in campaign ads and arguing that he’d exacerbate the opioid epidemic if elected in November.
With opioids ravaging so many American communities, Congressman Beto O’Rourke's radical resolution to legalize all narcotics—including heroin and other deadly opioids—is looking worse and worse all the time: https://t.co/VdwaYMccMn #TXSen
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) May 1, 2018
Which message will ultimately more resonant with Texas voters is yet to be determined—but the race is looking close.
Photo courtesy of Facebook/Beto O’Rourke.