In Historic Vote, UN CND Votes to Remove Cannabis from Most Restrictive Drug Schedule [FEATURE]

In an historic vote Wednesday, the 53 member states of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the UN body charged with setting drug policy, voted to remove cannabis from Schedule IV of the United Nations' drug classification system as they met in Vienna.

Vienna International Centre
The vote followed an independent scientific assessment undertaken by some of the world's leading experts convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2017 and 2018. The Geneva-based WHO is charged under the UN drug conventions with assessing the harms and benefits of substances and making scheduling recommendations. In January 2019, the WHO formally recommended that cannabis be removed from Schedule IV and that CBD cannabis preparations containing less than 0.2% THC, such as tinctures and extracts, be removed from the schedules altogether.

While civil society groups gave the WHO's recommendations decidedly mixed reviews, including its "very questionable rationale for keeping cannabis in Schedule I," they also applauded its "obvious recommendations deserving support." The removal of cannabis form Schedule IV in particular would signify UN recognition that cannabis really does have therapeutic uses.

As explained in an October briefing paper from the International Drug Policy Consortium and the Transnational Institute, cannabis is currently both a Schedule I and a Schedule IV drug under the international drug treaties. Schedule I includes "substances that are highly addictive and liable to abuse or easily convertible into those (e.g. opium, heroin, cocaine, coca leaf" -- although Bolivia begs to differ on the latter), while Schedule IV includes Schedule I drugs with "particularly dangerous properties and little or no therapeutic value" (e.g. heroin, carfentanil).

Wednesday's vote removing cannabis from Schedule IV means the global anti-drug bureaucracy now recognizes the therapeutic value of cannabis and no longer considers it "particularly liable to abuse and to produce ill effects."

With medical marijuana legal in dozens of countries in one form or another, the ever-increasing mountain of evidence supporting the therapeutic uses of cannabis, not to mention outright legalization in 15 American states Canada and Uruguay, with Mexico about to come on board, this decision by the CND is long past due, but nonetheless welcome.

"With this decision, the UN closes a 60-year denial of what has been documented as being among the most ancient medicinal plants humankind has domesticated," said independent researcher Kenzi Riboulet-Zemouli, who has monitored the CND process for years.

It will be 60 years in March since cannabis was placed in Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic without ever having been subject to any scientific assessment.

"As a medical patient myself I know how necessary this change in international law is, to help reduce the suffering of millions of people and how it adds a much needed pain treatment with promise in mitigating reliance on opiates at a key moment in history," said Michael Krawitz, executive director of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access (USA), one of the global civil society groups that has been pushing for reform at the UN.

While the CND accepted the WHO's recommendation to remove cannabis from Schedule IV, it failed to advance some other recommendations, including rejecting a recommendation on medical CBD. That means CBD remains unscheduled, outside treaty controls, and liable to national bans. The failure to adopt more progressive WHO recommendations was "disappointing and represents a lost opportunity to make the treaty best fit to purpose," activists said.

But this is the United Nations, and change comes at a glacial pace and even then, only incrementally. Still, Tuesday's vote is a long overdue step in the right direction and lays the groundwork for more progress in years to come.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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