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Recreational Cannabis Countries Should Revert to Prohibition, According to UN Group

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: Mar 06, 2019   
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A UN body has called on all governments to adhere to the international drug conventions that prohibit cannabis. 

In a new report, the group recommend that countries that have legalized the drug, such as Canada and Uruguay, should “take steps to bring the entirety of their territories back into compliance with the international drug control conventions and their obligations thereunder.”

The authors warn of the harm cannabis can do to users’ physical and mental health and criticize poorly regulated medical cannabis programmes, which they state can increase the recreational use of the drug and lower the perception of its risk.

Commenting on its latest report, the president of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), Viroj Sumyai, said, “Legalization of cannabis for recreational purposes, as seen in a small number of countries, represents not only a challenge to the universal implementation of the treaties and the signatories to the treaties, but also a significant challenge to health and wellbeing, particularly among young people.”

“There is a great deal of misunderstanding about the safety, regulation and distribution of cannabis, particularly where recreational use has been legalized or medical cannabis programmes are expanding.”

Contrary to recent reports that the UN may soften its stance on cannabis and its compounds, the INCB report holds to the organization’s historically harsh view and maintains the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs’ classification system, which in 1961 grouped cannabis alongside heroin as “one of the most dangerous and regarded as exceptionally addictive and producing severe ill effects.

“There is limited knowledge of the way the international drug control system works,” says Sumyai. 

“It has been designed by States to safeguard public health by preventing drug abuse while ensuring access to important medicines.”

The 126-page report details the complex international drug control systems, the current drug controls in every continent, and the dangers of consuming marijuana, which include “panic attacks”, “dependence”, “chronic and acute bronchitis”, and an “increased risk of early school leaving.” 

One of the authors’ main concerns is that poorly regulated medical cannabis programmes could lead to illicit recreational sales. Such open drug use could then lower the perceived risk of using cannabis and contribute to the legalization of non-medical cannabis use, which would be “contrary to the international drug control treaties.”

But these concerns could be viewed disingenuously. Canada and Uruguay violated the treaties in 2018 and 2013, respectively, by fully legalizing commercial cannabis production. Ten US states also permit recreational use and the majority of Americans support nation-wide legalization.  

Assessing the US’s own legalization, the report highlights research that showed an increase in cannabis use among adults over the age of 21, and criticizes the first wave of medical dispensaries, such as those in Colorado, which were “used to create a de facto legal cannabis market for non-medical users.”

The report does give some credit to the medical benefits of certain cannabinoids. According to the authors, Sativex, the cannabis extract mouth spray, “may be useful in treating neuropathic pain and muscle spasticity” and CBD “may reduce seizure frequency in some genetic intractable childhood epilepsy syndromes.” But, ultimately, the report resists endorsing any medical cannabis products, claiming that, “Cannabinoids are not a first-line treatment for any of those conditions.”

The conclusions distinguish the INCB from other UN advisory bodies, such as the World Health Organization’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD), which in the past has called on the Secretary-General of the UN to recognize the medical benefits of cannabis and reschedule CBD within the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

The UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs was set to vote on the ECDD’s recent recommendations during its meeting on March 7th, in Vienna, but the meeting has since been postponed

The INCB report still advocates for better access to pain relief mediations, just not those that are cannabis-based. The report highlights South Asia as a region where pain relief is often grossly mishandled, and chronic conditions, such as epilepsy, are treated with opioids and tranquilizers. In these instances, the group recommend that more health-care professionals, such as specially trained nurses, be allowed to prescribe effective medication.

“Our report’s focus on the use of cannabis and cannabinoids is coming at the right time, with recent legislative developments in a number of countries on medical and non-medical use,” Sumyai asserted.

“Today’s drug control challenges may seem daunting, but such challenges have been successfully overcome through cooperative efforts and political will. That same spirit and commitment are needed today.”

Leo Bear-McGuinness

Science Writer & Editor

Leo joined Analytical Cannabis in 2019. From research to regulations and analysis to agriculture, his writing covers all the need-to-know news for the cannabis industry. He holds a Bachelor's in Biology from Newcastle University and a Master's in Science Communication from the University of Edinburgh.


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