A key United Nations (UN) panel approved a World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation to remove marijuana from the most restrictive global scheduling category on Wednesday.
With the backing of the U.S. government, the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) adopted the proposal to delete cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention.
This doesn’t mean that member nations are cleared to legalize marijuana, however, as it remains under the separate Schedule I of the international drug control system. But advocates say it demonstrates an evolution in how the international community views cannabis policy, as it formally recognizes the medical value of the plant and it could promote further research into its therapeutic potential.
WHO made six recommendations on global cannabis policy last year—and CND has held numerous meetings on the proposals. After numerous meetings and delays, members finally held votes at a meeting this week.
The proposal to remove marijuana from Schedule IV was arguably the most consequential of the reforms, and is the only one that was approved. (The international scheduling system differs from that of the U.S. in that the country’s most restrictive category is Schedule I.)
Here’s a rundown of the votes on the WHO’s cannabis recommendations:
APPROVED: Remove marijuana from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention.
REJECTED: Add THC and dronabinol (synthetic or plant-derived THC medication) to Schedule I of the 1961 Convention and, if approved, delete them from Schedule II of the 1971 Convention.
REJECTED: If the second recommendation is adopted, add tetrahydrocannabinol to Schedule I of the 1961 Convention and, if approved, delete it from Schedule I of the 1971 Convention.
REJECTED: Delete “extracts and tinctures of cannabis” from Schedule I of the 1961 Convention.
REJECTED: Add footnote to clarify that CBD products containing no more than 0.2 percent THC are not subject to international control.
REJECTED: Add “preparations containing dronabinol” to Schedule III of the 1961 Convention.
The vote to move cannabis out of its restrictive scheduling status was close, with 27 countries in favor, 25 against and one abstention.
“The vote of the United States to remove cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV of the Single Convention while retaining them in Schedule I is consistent with the science demonstrating that while a safe and effective cannabis-derived therapeutic has been developed, cannabis itself continues to pose significant risks to public health and should continue to be controlled under the international drug control conventions,” the U.S. delegation said in a statement.
“Further, this action has the potential to stimulate global research into the therapeutic potential and public health effects of cannabis, and to attract additional investigators to the field, including those who may have been deterred by the Schedule IV status of cannabis,” the country added.
— EU Delegation Vienna 🇪🇺 (@euunvie) December 2, 2020
Russia, China and Pakistan were among those nations that opposed the reform.
🇷🇺Russia voted against all @WHO/ECDD recommendations on cannabis and cannabis-related substances. Half of the CND membership shares the same position. pic.twitter.com/Ep8m1gfnxt
— Russian Mission Vienna (@mission_rf) December 2, 2020
Advocates cheered the move while saying it doesn’t go far enough.
“After six decades since its placement into the strictest international category, and three years of review, the UN has finally made the decision to recognize the therapeutic value of cannabis,” Steph Sherer, president and founder of Americans for Safe Access and the International Medical Cannabis Patients Coalition, said in a press release. “This is a momentous occasion for cannabis advocates everywhere who have been fighting for this change for many years.
Ann Fordham, executive director of the International Drug Policy Consortium, welcomed the “long overdue recognition that cannabis is a medicine” from the international body.
“However, this reform alone is far from adequate given that cannabis remains incorrectly scheduled at the international level,” she said. “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 criminalized and incarcerated across the globe. The review process has been a missed opportunity to correct that historical error.”
Here's how the 53 member states in the Commission on Narcotic Drugs voted on the WHO recommendation to remove cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 single convention – finally acknowledging its medicinal and therapeutic utility
— TransformDrugPolicy (@TransformDrugs) December 2, 2020
The U.S. said in October that it would be supporting the WHO recommendation to remove cannabis from the restrictive global drug scheduling category—though it was opposing the other cannabis reform proposals, including the one to clarify that CBD is not under international control.
Despite supporting the main scheduling recommendation, however, the country circulated a proposed joint statement to other member states that claimed consensus on the notion “that cannabis is properly subject to the full scope of international controls of the 1961 Single Convention, due in particular to the high rates of public health problems arising from cannabis use and the global extent of such problems, as identified in the critical review by WHO.”
It also stipulates that “no Party shall be precluded from adopting measures of control more strict or severe than those required as a result of this decision, if such measures in its opinion are necessary or desirable for the protection of the public health or welfare.” The language seems to attempt to leave room for countries to continue enforcing more restrictive cannabis policies regardless of international rules.
While the WHO’s CBD recommendation would simply offer clarification that cannabidiol products containing no more than 0.2 percent THC isn’t a controlled substance under international treaties, the U.S. and the vast majority of other countries voted against the measure.
“This recommendation to give effect to a state of affairs which already exists therefore breaks from past procedure and intrudes on the treaty-based mandate of the CND to make recommendations for the implementation of the aims and provisions of the drug control conventions,” the U.S. said in explaining its vote. “Additionally, adoption of the proposed footnote would have in effect amended the Single Convention by creating a new category of preparations wholly excluded from control.”
“The treaties give significant flexibility to allow Member States to design drug control polices that reflect their national realities,” the country added. “We believe the Member States are capable of determining for themselves what should be considered a ‘pure’ cannabidiol preparation for domestic enforcement purposes, based on analytical capacity, abuse liability, and prioritization of prosecutorial resources.”
The U.S.’s support for the separate recommendation to remove marijuana from Schedule IV represents a departure from its position as articulated in a government document that Marijuana Moment obtained earlier this year. The document stated that it’s “possible that civil society, the media, and the general public will view deleting cannabis from Schedule IV as a first step toward widespread legalization of marijuana use, especially without proper messaging.”
If the recommendation on CBD had been adopted, it could have had far-reaching implications in the U.S. In 2018, the 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.
FDA has on several occasions solicited public input to shape the government’s position on the international scheduling of marijuana and cannabinoids. The agency initially requested feedback on the proposal in March 2019 and then reopened that comment period five months later.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.