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UN Reschedules Cannabis in Historic Vote

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: Dec 02, 2020   

Photo by Dimitry Anikin via Unsplash.

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To the celebration of drug reform advocates around the world, a United Nations (UN) commission has today voted to remove cannabis and cannabis resins from the strictest category of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

By a margin of 27 votes in favor and 25 against (with one abstention), the UN’s Commission on Narcotics and Drugs (CND) approved the reclassification, which came recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

As the UN’s classification system underpins most countries’ drug laws, this modified definition of cannabis could affect drug regulations around the world.

Cannabis, redefined

Since the creation of the Single Convention, 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 in January 2019, after a historic evaluation, the WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) called for change. 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.”

After a couple of delays, the vote on this recommendation and others was finally put to the CND this Wednesday, December 2, in Vienna, Austria.

Recommendation 5.1 – to remove cannabis and cannabis resins from Schedule IV – passed by a slim majority. Countries such as Peru, Hungary, Japan, and Nigeria opposed the measure. While the countries that supported the rescheduling included Colombia, Jamaica, Thailand, and the United States.

Speaking to the CND session, the delegate from the US cited the approval of the CBD-based medicine Epidiolex by the country’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as reasoning for the US’s support of rescheduling, but urged caution on further reclassifications.

“The United States voted yes on Recommendation 5.1, consistent with the science demonstrating that while a safe and effective cannabis-derived therapeutic has been developed, cannabis itself continues to pose a significant risk to public health,” they said, “and should continue to be controlled under the international drug conventions.”

But regardless of any additional actions, cannabis’ omission from the Schedule IV category could still have significant effects for scientific research into marijuana’s properties.

“This action has the potential to stimulate global research into the therapeutic potential and public health effects of cannabis and to attract additional investigators to the field,” the US delegate continued, “including those who may have been deterred by the Schedule IV status.”

The reclassification could also affect medical cannabis polices around the world, now that the CND has tacitly acknowledged the medical use of cannabis.

“The move is mostly symbolic, but what a symbol!” Kenzi Riboulet-Zemouli, an independent drug policy researcher who closely monitored the vote, told Analytical Cannabis

“More than anything, it normalizes and will impulse normalization of the place of cannabis in medical care globally.”

The five other cannabis-related recommendations were voted down by the CND. These proposals included deleting “extracts and tinctures” from the 1961 treaty and adding a footnote for CBD medicines, which would outline a THC threshold for “predominantly” CBD preparations.

Only six nations voted for the latter proposal, which had received criticism for its ambiguous wording and restrictiveness.

“The treaties give significant flexibility to allow member states to design drug control policies that reflect their national realities,” the delegate from the US, which voted against the CBD footnote recommendation, told the CND commission.

“We believe member states can determine themselves what should be considered a pure cannabidiol [CBD] preparation.”


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