UN Holds Historic Cannabis Vote
The United Nations (UN) Commission for Narcotic Drugs (CND) voted today to remove cannabis from schedule IV of the 1961 Convention on Narcotic Drugs. This was an important vote for symbolic and historic reasons, but does it really matter?
What is the 1961 Convention on Narcotic Drugs and how does it relate to cannabis?
The 1961 Convention on Narcotic Drugs (Convention) is an international treaty in which participating countries agree to prohibit the production and supply of certain drugs, including cannabis, except for specific purposes, such as medical treatment and research. Currently, the Convention has 186 signatories (ie, countries that have agreed to it), though not all participants comply strictly with its terms. (See, eg, Canada and Uruguay. Canada disputes that it is violating the Convention.) The Convention is one of three UN treaties established as the foundation for an international drug control regime to regulate and control narcotic drugs, including cannabis. In addition to the Convention, the other two treaties are the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971 (Psychotropic Convention) and the Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988 (Trafficking Convention). All of these treaties include cannabis among the scheduled substances.
Until today’s vote, the Convention listed cannabis as a schedule IV substance. The Convention has four schedules. The two main schedules are schedules I and II. Schedules III and IV are complementary schedules. Schedule IV is a stricter subset of schedule I. Any
substance included in Schedule I can also be added to Schedule IV if it is considered to be “particularly liable to abuse and to produce ill-effects and if such liability is not offset by substantial therapeutic advantages not possessed by substances other than drugs in Schedule IV.” In this respect, it is somewhat similar to Schedule I of the US Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which is the most restrictive and reserved for substances that have “a high potential for abuse“, “no currently accepted medical treatment use in the US“, and “a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.” Under US federal law, no prescriptions may be written for Schedule I substances, and they are not readily available for clinical use. Of course, this scheduling is absurd given cannabis’s significant interaction with the endo-cannabinoid system and its well-documented utility for treating a wide array of medical and health issues. (Just do a PubMed search for clinical studies of “cannabis” and you will get tens of thousands of hits.)
What happened today?
The CND voted on six proposals (Recommendations) regarding cannabis. In addition to voting to remove cannabis from schedule IV (Recommendation 5.1), which was approved, the Committee voted on five other related proposals, none of which were approved. As reported by MJBiz Daily:
- Recommendation 5.2 to move THC from the 1971 convention to the 1961 treaty failed to win the body’s approval, with 23 votes in favor, two abstentions and 28 votes against.
- Recommendations 5.3 and 5.6 were tied to the approval of Recommendation 5.2. Because 5.2 was turned down, those two recommendations were rejected without a vote.
- Recommendation 5.6 was about placing certain THC pharmaceutical preparations in Schedule III of the 1961 treaty.
- Recommendation 5.4 – a proposal to delete “extracts and tinctures of cannabis” from the 1961 treaty – was rejected with 24 votes in favor, two abstentions and 27 against. But according to the WHO’s explanation of the recommendation, it is simply meant to eliminate a duplicity and does not seek “to decrease the level of control of any cannabis-related substance or narrow the scope of control.”
- Recommendation 5.5 was rejected with six votes in favor, four abstentions and 43 against. This recommendation represents a missed opportunity to clarify the confusing legal situation for CBD preparations with traces of THC. The proposal was drafted in an ambiguous way, and the WHO’s responses to member states’ questions about this recommendation over the past two years added confusion.
The vote was largely in response to official reports by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2019 in which it “concluded that the inclusion of cannabis and cannabis resin in Schedule IV is not consistent with the criteria for a drug to be placed in Schedule IV.” The WHO further stated:
“The evidence presented to the Committee did not indicate that cannabis plant and cannabis resin were particularly liable to produce ill-effects similar to the effects of the other substances in Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. In addition, preparations of cannabis have shown therapeutic potential for treatment of pain and other medical conditions such as epilepsy and spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis. In line with the above, cannabis and cannabis resin should be scheduled at a level of control that will prevent harm caused by cannabis use and at the same time will not act as a barrier to access and to research and development of cannabis-related preparation for medical use.“
Although the WHO’s recommendations were issued in 2019, the political divisiveness of cannabis has resulted in multiple delays. Today’s vote was not unanimous. As reported by the NY Times, “The reclassification passed 27 to 25, with an abstention from Ukraine. The United States and European nations were among those who voted in favor, while the likes of China, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan and Russia were opposed.” For a complete listing of the votes, click here.
What does this vote mean?
Undoubtedly, this is a victory for cannabis reform. In particular, it is both a historic and symbolic victory over the decades-long international position that cannabis is harmful and has no medical benefits. The fact that the US voted in favor of reclassifying cannabis under the Convention is a big and positive statement given that it still lists cannabis (or, rather, “marihuana” as it is referred to in the CSA) among the most restricted class of drugs. Relying on the FDA’s approval of Epidiolex, a CBD medication, the US representative said the following in support of the approval vote: “the legitimate medical use of a cannabis preparation has been established through scientific research, and cannabis no longer meets the criterion for placement in Schedule IV of the Single Convention.”
As great as the US approval vote sounds, it is tempered by two facts. First, and as reported by Marijuana Moment, the US circulated a proposed joint statement to other member countries that claims consensus on the notion “that cannabis 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.” In other words, the US simultaneously voted to remove cannabis from schedule IV, but still contends that it should be regulated heavily.
Second, the fact that US federal law maintains marijuana’s most restrictive classification underscores the reality that today’s UN vote does not actually require individual countries to do anything. To this point, my friend and colleague Stephen Oliver of The Canna Consultants in the UK states that the vote, “will not have any impact on the loosening of international controls: drugs in Schedule IV of the 1961 treaty are a subset of those already in Schedule I, and Schedule I already requires the highest levels of international control. Therefore, the outcome is symbolic rather than practical and may cause countries to re-consider their national classification of cannabis, thus leading to improved access to cannabis and cannabinoids in the future.” I agree. The US proposed joint statement referenced above goes on to say, “no Party shall be precluded from adopting measures of control more strict or severe than those required as a result of this decision, if such measures in its opinion are necessary or desirable for the protection of the public health or welfare.”
The result of today’s UN vote is that cannabis reform policy made a big stride forward, particularly with respect to international acceptance of the fact that cannabis has beneficial health properties. However, international acceptance of this fact has mostly been the case since the WHO made its recommendations in 2019. The more important takeaway is that the vote does not go far enough- no country has a mandate to change its cannabis policy, regardless of whether or not it is out of line with current scientific evidence. This means that there is still a lot of work to do before everyone has access to cannabis, regardless of the country in which they reside.
December 2, 2020
Rod Kight is an international cannabis lawyer. He represents businesses throughout the cannabis industry. Additionally, Rod speaks at cannabis conferences, drafts and presents cannabis legislation to foreign governments, is regularly quoted on cannabis matters in the media, and is the editor of the Kight on Cannabis legal blog, which discusses legal issues affecting the cannabis industry. You can contact him by clicking here.