Just shy of six decades after cannabis was first categorised as a narcotic by the United Nations (UN), member states have finally voted to recognise the plant’s medicinal potential, accepting a proposal to reschedule it. Votes were cast on Wednesday, December 2nd, by members of the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), resulting in the ratification of a recommendation from the World Health Organization (WHO) to overturn a treaty that advises against the use of medical cannabis.
A Major Step Towards Cannabis Reform
The UN’s 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs placed cannabis in Schedule IV, alongside a number of other drugs such as heroin. This category is reserved for dangerous substances with no beneficial uses, and is a sub-set of Schedule I, which is subject to the strictest international controls.
Clearly, marijuana does not belong in this category, yet rescheduling has proved extremely hard to achieve, in spite of the mounting evidence for the plant’s medical properties. Yet in January of 2019, the WHO finally put forward a list of six recommendations concerning the status of cannabis, after spending the previous two years conducting a thorough scientific review of the issue.
It’s taken almost another two years of meetings, discussions and delays for these recommendations to finally be put to a vote by the CND, yet the outcome could have major ramifications for the future of medical cannabis worldwide.
What Did The WHO Recommend?
After a comprehensive review of all the scientific literature regarding the medical benefits and safety profile of cannabis, the WHO recommended that the plant be rescheduled due to its obvious “therapeutic potential” and the fact that it is not “liable to produce ill-effects similar to the effects of the other substances in Schedule IV.”
Despite reaching this conclusion and recommending that cannabis be removed from Schedule IV, the WHO appeared to contradict itself by failing to recommend that it also be removed from Schedule I. This, however, is largely down to the fact that such a proposal would be extremely unlikely to receive approval at this time, given the notorious resistance of many member states to back cannabis reform. Removal from Schedule IV is therefore something of a first step, but a potentially significant one.
With a total of 27 nations voting in favour of the recommendation – including the United States, the United Kingdom and a number of EU countries such as France and Spain – a majority was achieved. This means that the UN now officially recognises the medical properties of cannabis, and no longer has a treaty advising against its use.
While this is clearly a big win, there was also cause for disappointment as the other five recommendations put forward by the WHO were all rejected. These included a rescheduling of THC and an attempt to clarify the legality of CBD. It’s worth noting, though, that many countries voted against the CBD proposal due to the fact that the WHO’s wording on the subject was somewhat confusing, rather than because they actually oppose the use of the cannabinoid.
What Will This Mean For The Legality Of Medical Cannabis
Because marijuana remains in Schedule I of the treaty, this vote will not directly change the legal status of the plant. However, for the first time in 60 years the UN no longer claims that cannabis lacks medical applications, which is likely to open the doors to further research into its therapeutic potential.
Furthermore, because many governments base their drug laws explicitly on the UN’s treaties, it’s likely that some will now legalise the medical use of cannabis while continuing to penalise recreational use, as this is now effectively the UN’s position.
This has already resulted in a historic policy change in Argentina, which decided to fall into line with the WHO’s recommendations even before the vote took place. As such, the country legalised the sale and self-cultivation of cannabis for medical use, citing the fact that the main scientific advisor to the UN has endorsed such an approach.
All in all, it may seem like small progress given the amount of time it has taken to reach this point, but this historic vote seems likely to pave the way for more substantial cannabis reform worldwide in the coming years.