The medical cannabis industry could be in for one of its biggest symbolic wins in decades if a United Nations vote next week implicitly acknowledges the medical value of the drug.
During its reconvened 63rd session Dec. 2-4, the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) could – with a simple majority vote in a virtual meeting based in Vienna – accept a World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation to remove cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
The CND’s adoption of that recommendation could prompt a cascade of positive effects for the industry, justifying medical legalization efforts at national levels around the world and potentially positioning countries to broaden already-established regulations.
A vote is scheduled for Dec. 2, but delays and postponements have been common throughout this process.
The proposal in question – Recommendation 5.1 – is among six WHO cannabis-related recommendations on the agenda and believed to be the one with the highest likelihood of approval. It’s also arguably the most significant recommendation for the industry.
The process of evaluating the six WHO cannabis recommendations could come to a conclusion next week – almost two years after they were first unveiled.
The vote was postponed in March 2020 to give CND member states time to “clarify the implications and consequences of, as well as the reasoning for, these recommendations.”
Between June and October, U.N.-member states had three informal, closed “topical meetings” followed by an “intersessional meeting” to allow stakeholders to exchange views on the economic, legal, administrative, social implications, among others, of adopting or rejecting the WHO cannabis proposals.
With the support of European Union and North American nations as well as some countries from Latin America and elsewhere, a simple majority in favor of Recommendation 5.1 seems possible, but a vote postponement can’t be ruled out.
The possible adoption of the recommendation could boost medical legalization efforts of policymakers and advocates around the globe.
A positive outcome could also boost efforts to reevaluate national levels of control – for example, encouraging the United States government to move cannabis from the most restrictive category of its Controlled Substances Act.
This, in turn, has the potential to boost much needed cannabis research, which could prove the efficacy of certain medical cannabis treatments and, thus, open the door to a broader legal market.
Cannabis research is currently possible, but the drug’s Schedule IV status in the 1961 international treaty acts as a deterrent.
What should not be expected is loosening of international controls.
Drugs in Schedule IV of the 1961 treaty – the current situation with cannabis or heroin – are a subset of those already in Schedule I, and Schedule I already requires the highest levels of international control.
As such, a victory would be more symbolic than practical.
According to the WHO recommendation, “substances that are included in both these Schedules are particularly liable to abuse and to produce ill-effects and have little or no therapeutic use.”
In January 2019, after the WHO evaluated evidence, the organization recommended that the CND remove cannabis from Schedule IV because of its “therapeutic potential” and the belief it’s not “particularly liable to produce ill-effects similar to the effects of the other substances in Schedule IV.”
The complex package of six WHO cannabis recommendations also includes some proposals that are intertwined with implicit or explicit conditions, and some that require a special majority for adoption.
A vote against one or more of these recommendations for technical reasons shouldn’t be interpreted as an anti-cannabis vote.
Some countries could have assessed the administrative or legal consequences of adopting the recommendations as drafted by the WHO and concluded that these could create unintended uncertainties.
For instance, the ambiguously drafted CBD recommendation looks as if it will be rejected not only by countries that are against any change in the status quo but also by those that have been supportive of change at the U.N. level, such as the United States and European Union countries.
Although the proposal tries to address the issue of traces of THC in plant-derived CBD by establishing a 0.2% THC limit, it does not clarify how THC should be measured – and that could lead to confusion.
Therefore, the rejection of the CBD recommendation shouldn’t necessarily be interpreted as an endorsement of the narcotic status of the substance nor as a stance against CBD. CBD itself is not found in any schedule of any of the international drug-control conventions.
In some cases, it could be that countries do not consider a “footnote” clarifying that a category of products is outside the scope of international control to be the best option to deal with the issue of traces of THC in CBD preparations.
That’s the stance of the United States, which has said that countries should be able to “decide for themselves what an appropriate threshold (of THC) should be.”
It would not be surprising if some member states vote against the CBD recommendation because of technicalities related with how the proposals were redacted, asking the WHO to put forth a revised version.
Alfredo Pascual can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org