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Why Was the UN’s Vote on Rescheduling Cannabis Delayed?

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: Mar 10, 2020   
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For many drug reform activists, the most important dates in the calendar this year were between March 2-6, when the 63rd session of the United Nations’ (UN) Commission on Narcotics and Drugs (CND) would be held in Vienna. Among its many ballots, the session promised a vote on whether to reschedule cannabis.

However, to the disappointment of cannabis activists around the world, the vote was once again postponed to December. The reasons why have a lot to do with cannabis’ historical classifications and the governments that still value them.

A recap on cannabis scheduling

Since the creation of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in the 1960s, cannabis has been considered as both a Schedule I and Schedule IV substance, the latter of which grouped the plant alongside heroin as “one of the most dangerous and regarded as exceptionally addictive and producing severe ill effects.”

But last January, after a historic evaluation, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) called for progressive change on international cannabis policy. In a letter to the secretary-general of the UN, the committee requested for cannabis, its resins, extracts and tinctures to be “deleted from Schedule IV,” and for THC and its isomers to be “added to Schedule I.” 

As the UN’s drug classifications underpin most countries’ drug laws, the rescheduling could affect cannabis drug laws around the world.

Upon the WHO’s advice, the CND was first expected to reconsider cannabis scheduling in March 2019. Then, due to a delay in receiving the ECDD’s recommendations, the vote was pushed to March 2020, when the CND would next reconvene.

And yet, just before that vote was due to take place in Vienna last week, it was again postponed, this time because of the “complexity” of the recommendations.

“During the intensive informal considerations I have held over the last many weeks, it became clear that some delegations do not have a clear understanding on the implications and consequences of the recommendations, while others were prepared to go for a vote,” said the chair of the international drug control treaties commission.

“On this basis… the Commission on Narcotic Drugs recalls its mandate to vote on scheduling recommendations as laid out in the… recommendations of the World Health Organization on cannabis and cannabis-related substances, bearing in mind their complexity, in order to clarify the implications and consequences of, as well as the reasoning for, these recommendations.”

Rescheduling the rescheduling

But regardless of the “complexity” of the ECDD’s recommendations, it appears many CND voting members just don’t support them on principle.

Some of the countries that expressed disfavor towards rescheduling included Russia, Chile, Singapore, Nigeria, China, Kenya, Japan, and Sudan.

“We suggest the task of the CND at the time is to analyze what is behind the need to weaken controls on cannabis, which remains the most abused narcotic drug in the world,” said the Russian delegate.

“We would like to reiterate our concerns that the ECDD’s recommendations will lose the controls over cannabis, leading to a widening public access and cause serious public health and safety issues,” said the delegate from Singapore.

“Cannabis is one of the most abused drugs in my country,” said the representative from Sudan. “So a hasty decision on the rescheduling of cannabis will have a disastrous consequence.”

While some of the countries that expressed support for rescheduling cannabis (and lament over the vote’s delay) included South Africa, Jamaica, Switzerland, Canada, the USA, Mexico, and a European Union conglomerate.

“We think the recommendations are sound, balanced, and based on a critical review of evidence,” said the delegate from South Africa.

“Continued delays will not improve access for patients to palliative care and other forms of illness, such as wasting syndrome, epilepsy,” the representative from Jamaica said. “They deserve this alternative where other options have failed.”

“We regret majority of countries wasn’t ready,” said the delegate from the European Union. “To provide additional time to allay concerns, we do not oppose the postponement of the vote at the reconvened session. We trust with your guidance, we will be ready to vote then.”

A belated vote

Considering the deep divisions on the matter of rescheduling, a forced vote may actually have led to a negative result.

It remains to be seen whether any intervening consultations can change the minds of enough representatives to make a different outcome more likely, but the CND chair still promised there would be more informal discussions on any cannabis concerns.

“I would underline that more engagement will be required in the intersessional period, involving INCB [International Narcotics Control Board] and WHO for their own expert views to address important aspects resonated by the member states today and with a view to move forward to the implementation of this decision in December,” the CND chair said in their closing remarks.

It’s now thought that two or three more meetings will take place before the next CND gathering in December.

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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