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UN Set to Review its Classification of Cannabis

By Leo Bear-McGuinness
Published: Sep 12, 2018   
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Following the advice of the World Health Organization’s expert committee, the United Nations will launch its first ever in-depth review into the international drug classification of cannabis.

The review will take place this November when the WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) next meets. The committee is a group of veteran drugs and medicines experts, which has played a central role in forming international drug control systems. It’s likely that they will recommend lowering the scheduling status of cannabis, cannabis resin, cannabis extracts and tinctures (including cannabidiol-rich extracts), THC, and THC isomers.

Following this review, official reclassification could come in March 2019, when the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs will either adopt or reject the recommendations of the WHO ECDD.

Revaluating the UN’s Classification

The UN’s current, official view on cannabis is still the same as it was in 1961 when it was given both Schedule I and Schedule IV classifications in the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The stricter status put cannabis alongside heroin as “one of the most dangerous and regarded as exceptionally addictive and producing severe ill effects”.

At the time, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction stated that the decision “reflects the concern about the abuse of cannabis and the desire of the convention promoters to advise countries to design, under national legislation, the most stringent control on cannabis”.

However, during the ECDD’s recent meeting, which was led by WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, concluded that “The evidence presented to the Committee did not indicate that cannabis plants and cannabis resin were liable to produce ill-effects similar to these other substances that are in Schedule IV of the 1961 Convention of Narcotic Drugs. The inclusion of cannabis resin in Schedule IV may not appear to be consistent with the criteria of Schedule IV”.

Prompted by growing research and support for the medicinal properties of cannabis and the emergence of cannabis-derived pharmaceutical preparations, the ECDD’s review specifically evaluated the benefits and detriments of medicinal products. These included cannabidiol (CBD), tinctures, and extracts.

Cannabidiol, Tinctures, and Extracts

CBD is not specifically listed in the conventions, but if it were prepared as an extract or tincture of cannabis it would fall under Schedule I. After reviewing its status against available research, the committee found “no evidence that CBD as a substance is liable to similar abuse and similar ill-effects as substances in the 1961 or 1971 Conventions such as cannabis or THC, respectively.”

The committee thus recommended that CBD should not be scheduled as such and preparations should be made for its reclassification.

The panel also evaluated extracts and tinctures, which included cannabis oils, teas and the cannabis-derived pharmaceutical drug, nabiximols. They noted that many of these substances had a “dependence potential”, which could lead to sleep disruption and mood changes, and some substances, such as Δ9-THC, also had an “abuse potential”. However, these properties weren’t uniform, and as the term “extracts and tinctures” also encompasses formulations with and without psychoactive properties, the classification was thought to have been poorly defined.

Thus, the committee concluded that the status should be reviewed in November in order to address “the necessity of continuing to include the nomenclature ‘extracts and tinctures of cannabis’ in the 1961 Convention”.

The Final Recommendations

Following this review, the chair of the ECDD’s committee and WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, formally submitted the following recommendations to the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres.

Cannabidiol (CBD)
The Committee recommended that preparations considered to be pure CBD should not be scheduled within the International Drug Control Conventions.

Cannabis plant and resins
The Committee concluded that there is sufficient evidence to proceed to a Critical Review

Extracts and tinctures of cannabis
The Committee concluded that there is sufficient evidence to process to a Critical Review

The Committee concluded that there is sufficient evidence to process to a Critical Revie

Isomers of THC
The Committee concluded that there is sufficient evidence to process to a Critical Review

It’s important to note that the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, was the Prime Minister of Portugal from 1995-2002 and was instrumental in the country’s decision to decriminalize the use of all drugs in 2001.

What Reclassification Could Mean

International treaties are more comparable to contracts than rules. All parties swear to comply and any state that fails to live up to its obligations can be held liable under international law.

As of February 2018, the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs has been agreed to by 186 recognized states. If the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs adopts the WHO ECDD’s recommendations on reclassifying cannabis, the 186 states would no longer be bound to the former definition. Depending on the country’s constitution, reclassification could trigger some states to review their official status of cannabis. This would be the case for the United States, for example.

Regardless, a decision by the UN to downgrade the status of cannabis from one of “the most dangerous” drugs would set a significant precedent for other countries to follow and learn from.


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