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World Health Organization Recommends Rescheduling Cannabis

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: Feb 05, 2019   
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The World Health Organization (WHO) is advocating for marijuana and its resins to be removed from the strictest classification within an international treaty on controlled substances, according to Americans for Safe Access.  

In a separate request, the organization are recommending that delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and its isomers be removed from a similar treaty and be rescheduled to a less harmful classification along with the whole plant.

Both these requests stand in sharp contrast to the near 60-year-old official attitude of the WHO, which has historically viewed cannabis as a harmful substance with no health benefits. 

This change in official stance is significant because, if the recommendations are adopted by the UN, member nations would no longer be able to use the international treaties as justification for strict cannabis laws. 

What was said?

Back in 1961, 73 nations came together to create and ratify a single international drug treaty. Known as the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the agreement created four substance categories of increasing harm. Cannabis was listed under both Schedule I and Schedule IV, 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.”

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.”

Since then, 186 states have signed the convention and officially adhere to its classification system. 

But now, after a historic evaluation, the WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) is calling for progressive change. 

In a letter to the Secretary-General of the UN, the committee has 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.” 

The letter does not mention CBD, but the ECDD’s previous meeting did conclude that “preparations considered to be pure CBD should not be scheduled within the International Drug Control Conventions.”

What will change?

The recommendations will next go before the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs at its next meeting in March. The Commission’s 53 member states will then vote on whether to accept or reject them. 

Two of the member states, Canada and Uruguay, have already contravened the convention and legalized cannabis for recreational use, and so are almost certain to approve the proposals. Many other members, such as France, Thailand and Mexico, have legalized medicinal use to some degree and are also likely to accept the new classifications. 

If approved, the changes could have far reaching consequences for global cannabis regulations.

For example, last year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stated that CBD does not actually meet the criteria for federal control and is only treated as it is due to its association with substances banned under international drug treaties. 

“If treaty obligations do not require control of CBD, or the international controls on CBD under the 1961 Convention are removed at some future time, the above recommendation… would need to be revisited," reads an FDA statement

If CBD were to be reclassified by the UN, organizations like the FDA would no longer be bound to treat it as a harmful substance, and looser regulation may follow.  

Ultimately, though, the salient effect of any reclassification would be its implications. In the past few years alone, multiple countries have progressed medicinal and recreational cannabis laws. If the UN reclassify the plant as a less harmful substance, it could directly encourage many more countries to follow suite. 

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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