European Commission proposes unified EU vote on WHO cannabis scheduling recommendations

In advance of the March session of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), the European Union’s executive branch has proposed that EU member nations vote in favor of three of the six World Health Organization (WHO) cannabis scheduling recommendations.

The European Commission “Proposal for a Council Decision” is meaningful because – if adopted by the Council of Europe – the EU countries would vote as a block at the CND session in Vienna and the three motions the Commission supports stand a much higher chance of being approved.

One of these supported changes would be positive for the global cannabis industry: removing cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961).

Such a move would, in effect, recognize that cannabis and cannabis resin have medical value.

However, the Commission is proposing to postpone decisions on two other proposals and reject a third.

Notably, the Commission asked for a “further assessment” on the proposed clarification that CBD preparations with no more than 0.2% THC not be subject to international control.

The CND has 53 members with a right to vote. They serve four-year terms. Thirteen of the 53 members will be EU countries by March 2020. If those 13 vote as a block, they will represent almost a quarter of the total votes within the CND.

Commission on Narcotic Drugs

In January 2019, the WHO submitted to the UN Secretary General six recommendations affecting the scheduling of different categories of cannabis products.

These were based on reviews done by the Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD), a technical body of the WHO that studies the risks and benefits of drugs.

The Commission on Narcotic Drugs periodically updates its list of controlled substances and schedules based on the technical recommendations of the WHO.

The CND might make changes based on those recommendations, but it can also decide not to accept the proposals, taking into account economic, political or social factors, for instance.

The agenda of the March session of the CND still is not finalized, but it is expected to include a decision on the recommendations.

The European Commission proposal for a unified EU position suggests supporting only changes that “reflect developments of the scientific knowledge” and “would not result in a significant change in the control” of cannabis.

The Commission proposed voting against recommendations that “are characterized by a lack of clarity surrounding their legal and practical implications and consequences in terms of new control measures or lack thereof.”

In favor

The European Commission proposed voting in favor of the following recommendations:

  • Removing cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV of the 1961 convention.

Currently, cannabis and cannabis resin are included in both Schedule I and Schedule IV of the 1961 treaty. This combination is reserved for substances that deserve the highest level of control, with extremely limited or no medical value.

Removing cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV of the 1961 convention won’t imply any meaningful change in the level of international control because it will continue to be included in Schedule I.

But a removal from Schedule IV “would be beneficial to the advancement of collective knowledge of both the therapeutic utility as well as any associated harms of cannabis,” according to the Commission.

The remaining two WHO recommendations the Commission supports are:

  • Adding dronabinol (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol) and tetrahydrocannabinol (isomers of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol) to Schedule I of the 1961 convention and, if these recommendations are adopted, deleting them from the 1971 convention.

The European Commission is in favor of this recommendation because moving THC to Schedule I of the 1961 treaty – and deleting it from the 1971 treaty – “implies no change in the international control level” and could “facilitate the implementation of the control measures in Member States.”

Further assessment

The European Commission proposed that its member nations “take the position that the recommendation should not be put to vote and further assessment by WHO should be requested” for the following two proposals:

  • Removing extracts and tinctures of cannabis from Schedule I of the 1961 convention.

The WHO recommended deleting this category from the 1961 treaty because extracts and tinctures encompass “diverse preparations with a variable concentration of THC,” some being nonpsychoactive and with “promising therapeutic applications.”

The European Commission proposed further assessment because “there is no apparent public health justification” for the change and “it is difficult to assess fully its implications.”

  • Adding a footnote saying that “preparations containing predominantly cannabidiol and not more than 0.2% of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol are not under international control.”

According to the European Commission document, CBD preparations are currently controlled “under the entry ‘Extracts and tinctures of cannabis’ in Schedule I of the Convention on Narcotic Drugs.”

The Commission argued the WHO proposal “would lower current control level for these preparations.”

Moreover, establishing THC limits for preparations that contain mostly CBD “is not supported by scientific evidence,” and “the wording of the recommendation does not exclude possible divergent interpretations concerning the way of calculating such limit,” according to the Commission.

The Commission also argued that “the differentiated treatment of cannabidiol compared to other cannabinoids is not justified and is not in line with the existing structure of the Schedules of the Conventions.”

Against

The Commission is proposing its member nations vote against:

  • Adding preparations of THC that follow certain criteria to Schedule III of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961).

According to the WHO recommendation, some pharmaceutical medicines with THC currently are unlikely to be abused so they should be added to Schedule III of the 1961 treaty, which has a lower level of control than Schedule I.

The WHO suggested including Schedule III preparations “produced either by chemical synthesis or as preparation of cannabis, that are compounded as pharmaceutical preparations with one or more other ingredients and in such a way that delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol cannot be recovered by readily available means or in a yield which would constitute a risk to public health.”

However, the European Commission proposed voting against this change because it “could imply additional regulatory burden on Member States.”

In addition, the European Commission argued that “the wording of the recommendation concerning ‘pharmaceutical’ preparations is not based on any defined term under the Convention on Narcotic Drugs and may not be compatible with the EU terminology as provided by Directive 2001/83 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 6 November 2001 on the Community code relating to medicinal products for human use.”

Alfredo Pascual can be reached at [email protected]

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