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What Does The U.N.’s Reclassification Of Cannabis Mean?

Two weeks ago, I reported on the landmark ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union (the CJEU) that cannabidiol (CBD) derived from the entire hemp plant is not a narcotic under the U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 (the Single Convention); and thus, should be freely traded between European Union (EU) member states.

The same day that piece was published, the European Commission accepted the CJEU ruling and retracted its preliminary position on treating hemp-derived CBD and other extracts derived from the flowering tops of the Cannabis sativa L. plant as narcotics. This means that CBD ingestible products won’t be banned from the EU market and that European regulators have resumed the review of those existing CBD Novel Food Authorization applications.

Then, on December 2, 2020, the United Nations Commission for Narcotic Drugs (the CND) brought to a vote six recommendations made by World Health Organization (WHO) in 2019.

The Single Convention, an international treaty in which member countries pledge to ban the production and trade of certain drugs, including cannabis, except for medical and research purposes, categorizes drugs based on their possible harm versus medical utility. The Single Convention has four schedules: Schedules I and II are the main schedules, whereas Schedules III and IV are complementary schedules. Schedule IV is a stricter subset of Schedule I and includes substances considered to be the most harmful and with virtually no therapeutic value — this is in essence comparable to Schedule I of the U.S. Controlled Substance Act (the CSA).

Of the six WHO recommendations, only the proposal to remove cannabis and cannabis resin for medicinal purposes from Schedule IV of the Single Convention was approved by a close vote, passing 27 to 25, with the United States (the U.S.) and notable European nations in favor.


In a statement published before the December 2 vote, the U.S. explained its decision to vote in favor of removing medical cannabis from the most restrictive international schedule as follows:

“The vote of the United States to remove cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV of the Single Convention while retaining them in Schedule I is consistent with the science demonstrating that while a safe and effective cannabis-derived therapeutic has been developed, cannabis itself continues to pose significant risks to public health and should continue to be controlled under the international drug control conventions. Further, 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, including those who may have been deterred by the Schedule IV status of cannabis.”

This statement is consistent and reflective of the fact that the market for the medical use of marijuana has exploded in the past decade, a growth that is expected to continue. Moreover, the 2020 U.S. election results revealed that many states, including conservative ones, have finally jumped on the cannabis bandwagon by legalizing the medical and recreational use of marijuana.

Despite this positive step forward in internationally recognizing the therapeutic values of cannabis and encouraging research and further legalization efforts, the vote in favor of removing medical cannabis from Schedule IV of the Single Convention was purely symbolic.

First, cannabis remains a Schedule I drug under the international drug control system.

Second, following the vote, the U.S. circulated a proposed joint statement to other member countries that essentially stipulates that despite its removal from Schedule IV of the Single Convention, cannabis should nonetheless be heavily regulated:

“[C]annabis is properly subject to the full scope of international controls of the 1961 Single Convention, due in particular to the high rates of public health problems arising from cannabis use and the global extent of such problems, as identified in the critical review by WHO.”

And third, the U.S. has yet to amend the CSA, which currently treats cannabis, specifically “marihuana,” as a Schedule I controlled substance. This fact reveals the symbolic meaning of the vote because member countries are now free to decide whether to revise their national classification of cannabis to match their decision to remove the plant from Schedule IV of the Single Convention.

Although the recommendation to reclassify cannabis was the focus and purportedly the most debated issue that member countries debated, the remaining five proposals that failed to pass are worth mentioning. These recommendations included:

Recommendation 5.2: Add dronabinol and its stereoisomers (delta-9 THC) to Schedule I of the 1961 Convention (Recommendations 5.3 and 5.6 were tied to Recommendation 5.2, and thus were rejected without a vote.) Recommendation 5.4: Delete “extracts and tinctures of cannabis” from Schedule I of the 1961 Convention. According to the WHO, this recommendation was solely intended to eliminate a duplicity and did not seek “to decrease the level of control of any cannabis-related substance or narrow the scope of control.” Recommendation 5.5: Exempt CBD preparations with less than 0.2% THC from international control. This recommendation was drafted in an ambiguous way and failed to pass on technical issues. The U.S. cited “legal and procedural grounds” to explain its vote, rather than an actual belief that CBD should be controlled by international drug conventions:

We do not dispute the scientific basis for the recommendation. Cannabidiol has not demonstrated abuse potential, and it is not our position that cannabidiol should be or is under the control of the international drug conventions … We look forward to continuing the conversation around this important issue within the CND.

So while not a complete win, the U.S. and other countries have made it clear that their votes against Recommendations 5.2 through 5.5 did not stem from a general anti-cannabis posture. In fact, their statements reveal they wish for the continued developments of cannabis reforms on an international scale. And while the vote in favor of removing cannabis from its current international Schedule IV status does not go far enough, it reveals the first step in a gradual trend of change, so that alone is enough cause to celebrate.

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