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U.N. Reclassifies Cannabis as a Less Dangerous Drug

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A United Nations commission voted to remove marijuana for medical use from a list of narcotics like heroin.

A United Nations commission voted on Wednesday 2nd December to remove cannabis for medical use from a category of the world’s most dangerous drugs, such as heroin, a highly anticipated and long-delayed decision that could clear the way for marijuana research and medical use.

The vote by the Commission for Narcotic Drugs, which includes 53 member states, considered a series of recommendations from the World Health Organization on reclassifying cannabis and its derivatives. But attention centered on a key recommendation to remove cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs — where it currently sits, alongside dangerous and highly addictive opioids like heroin.

Experts say the approval of the recommendation will have no immediate implications for loosening international controls, and governments will still have jurisdiction on how to classify cannabis. But many countries look to international conventions for guidance, and U.N. recognition is a symbolic win for advocates of drug policy change who say that international law is out of date.

The UN accepted recommendations made by the World Health Organisation which reschedule cannabis and cannabis related substances, effectively accepting the medical potential of cannabis.

Up until today, cannabis and derivatives of cannabis have been maintained in Schedule IV of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. This schedule is for those drugs which have a high potential for abuse and harm and extremely limited medical use, such as fentanyl and heroin. In January of 2019, the World Health Organisation’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence made six recommendations to be voted on by the UN for subsequent adoption. After a number of delays, the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs convened for their 63rd session today to vote on whether or not to adopt the recommendations.

For those countries that basically mirror the U.N. scheduling in their domestic legislation, it may lead to national descheduling and remove obstacles to use cannabis for medical and research purposes.

The recommendation with the most significant support leading up to the vote, and with far reaching consequence for international control of cannabis is the first recommendation 5.1, which was to:

“Delete cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV of the 1961 Convention”

The vote passed with a majority of 27 votes for and 25 against with 1 abstention. This result is that cannabis will now be removed from Schedule IV.

This means that cannabis and its derivatives are now maintained in schedule I rather than being in schedule I and IV. This is a major win for cannabis advocates around the world with considerable symbolic and some practical implications for cannabis regulation. Removal of cannabis from schedule IV means that the UN accepts the opinion of the WHO that cannabis is not “liable to produce ill-effects” on the scale of other drugs in Schedule IV, and that cannabis has significant potential therapeutic value.

The fact that cannabis remains in Schedule I means that it is still subject to strict international control, so the immediate legal consequences for the regulation of cannabis are limited. However, in the words of the US representative at the vote Ethan Glick: “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.”

CBD will not be removed from international control

Recommendation 5.5 has been rejected by a majority of 43 votes against, 6 for and 4 abstentions, meaning the UN will not remove CBD from the controlled substance’s act. This means that CBD will remain in some legal ambiguity under the UN conventions. It is likely that many nations who voted against the bill were not against the liberalization of CBD in principle but may not have agreed with the specific recommendation. For example, the representative of Colombia Miguel Camilo Ruíz Blanco told the commission that “Colombia’s negative vote is based on the absence of clear language in these recommendations” rather than a principled opposition. The US took the position that this recommendation was not needed as “It is not our position that CBD is under international control under the drug conventions” as it is not specifically mentioned in relevant legislation.

It is likely that individual regions will continue to apply their own interpretations of the place of CBD in international control. Just last week, the highest EU courts determined that the 1961 Convention does not implicate CBD in international narcotics control.

Other recommendations:

The other four recommendations made by the WHO were rejected by the majority of the 53 member states who voted.

Recommendation 5.2.1 would have added THC specifically to Schedule I, entailing some rearrangement of international controls without a significant loosening of restrictions on its use. Recommendation 5.2.1 was rejected by a majority 28 votes against and 23 against. This has the consequence that THC is not moved to Schedule I of the 1961 Convention. Furthermore, on the basis of the rejection of this motion the recommendations 5.2.1, 5.3.1, 5.3.2 and 5.6 were automatically rejected as these were contingent on the passing of 5.2.1.

Recommendation 5.4 which would “Delete extracts and tinctures of cannabis from Schedule I of the 1961 Convention” was rejected with 27 votes against and 24 votes in favor.

Some cannabis advocates argue the WHO did not go far enough with Recommendation 5.1, as cannabis does not have a risk profile comparable to the other drugs in Schedule I.

But considering how difficult cannabis reform has been at the U.N. level, the removal from Schedule IV is a step researchers and businesses will celebrate.

The long-overdue decision comes about 60 years after cannabis was first included in the strictest category of the 1961 Single Convention, one of three treaties that are the cornerstone of the international drug-control system.

The WHO cannabis recommendations were first revealed in January 2019 as part of a complex package of six cannabis-related proposals.

Member states took almost two years to analyze the implications of accepting or rejecting the proposals.