Reconsidering International Cannabis Policies: Vote on World Health Organization recommendations delayed
On February 25, 2019 the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) delayed the vote on recommendations by the World Health Organization (WHO) Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) to reschedule cannabis under international conventions. The vote on these recommendations was proposed to occur during the CNDs 62nd session in Vienna, Austria in March.
In late January 2019, the WHO ECDD proposed recommendations to the CND that cannabis be rescheduled from the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961 (1961 Convention) and the Convention on Psychotropic Substances 1971 (1971 Convention). With these recommendations, the cannabis community is overwhelmed with much fervor and excitement. But what does this all mean?
Conventions and Controls
The CND is a policy making body within the United Nations that oversees the implementation of drug control treaties and who’s resolutions and decision provide guidance to Member States.
The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961 and Convention on Psychotropic Substances 1971 establish controls surrounding narcotic drugs to combat drug abuse and trafficking through international cooperation and action.
Cannabis is currently classified in the most restrictive categories within both conventions. Within the 1961 Convention, cannabis is listed as a Schedule IV substance. This schedule is extremely restrictive, and leads to a complete ban on the production, manufacture, export and import, trade, possession or use except for the amounts which may be necessary for medical or scientific research. This category includes other substances such as heroin and substances that are the most dangerous and liable to addiction and abuse. The defining feature of this schedule is that these substances have “extremely limited medical or therapeutic value.”
Similar to the 1961 Convention, the 1971 Convention lists substances containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in Schedule I, the most restrictive schedule in the convention. Other substances in this schedule include LSD and substances presenting high risk of abuse and threat to public health with “little to no therapeutic value.”
The WHO ECDD has recommended that cannabis (THC) be removed from the 1971 Convention, and that cannabis be rescheduled from Schedule IV to Schedule I of the 1961 Convention. The significance of this must be clarified, as sources around the web have been misstating what Schedule I entails. Some sources are rejoicing that cannabis will now be in the least restrictive schedule in the 1961 Convention, and the logic makes sense; going down the numbers from Schedule IV to Schedule I should mean that the restrictions loosen. However, this is emphatically not the case.
Schedule I of the 1961 Convention is the second most highly restricted class, after Schedule IV, and is reserved for substances with addictive properties presenting a serious risk of abuse and addiction. This schedule is subject to all measures of control within the Convention. Schedule I includes substances like cocaine, morphine, and opium. Unfortunately, this means medical cannabis will not be doled out to the masses with this change; however, there is still significance in this recommendation.
A main takeaway from the rescheduling is the fundamental difference between Schedule IV and Schedule I of the 1961 Convention. Where Schedule IV substances are intended to have “extremely limited medical or therapeutic value”, Schedule I recognizes the medical and therapeutic usefulness of cannabis. This is a paradigm shift in the way decision makers have contextualized cannabis and the resulting cannabis policies. For an international governance body such as the CND to accept the recommendations means they accept that cannabis is medically useful; this will have substantial implications around the world. This will set a precedent for international government bodies to re-contextualize their understanding of cannabis and to re-conceptualize their existing governance frameworks related to medical cannabis.
There is evidence that this paradigm shift has already begun in the last few years as dozens of countries have implemented medical cannabis schemes. In February 2019, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling on the European Commission to harmonize cannabis regulation across the European Union (EU). The European Parliament has proposed a resolution that recognizes the medical usefulness of cannabis. Although there will be unintended consequences of this resolution, the underlying sentiment of cannabis as medicine is a paradigm shift away from the world of prohibition and ideological-driven policy.
During the February 25th Intersessional Meeting of the CND, some Member States such as Japan, Russia, and the United States have requested the vote be delayed allowing for more time for consultation and consideration regarding the recommendation. Member States such as Norway emphasized the importance of not delaying the vote, risking postponing the vote indefinitely.
In conclusion, cannabis will still be highly restricted and subject to all manner of controls within the 1961 Convention. However, the significance of a governing body as large as the CND recognizing the usefulness of cannabis as medicine is another indicator that we are moving out of the era of reefer-madness-policies and into one of evidence-based cannabis policies.
Written by: Taylor Yurcich, Policy Analyst
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