The United Nations (UN) will hold a long-delayed vote on whether to remove cannabis from its most restrictive drug schedule this week, potentially paving the way for the global legalization of medical marijuana.
On Wednesday, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) will vote on six cannabis reform recommendations proposed by the World Health Organization (WHO) last year. The road to this historic vote began in 2018, when the growing acceptance of medical and adult-use cannabis convinced the WHO to reconsider its global cannabis policies. Most notably, the organization recommended that the UN should stop classifying cannabis as one of the most dangerous drugs in the world.
Under current UN law, cannabis is listed as a Schedule IV drug, a category reserved for dangerous, addictive drugs with little medical value. Since 1961, weed has been lumped in with fentanyl, heroin, and dozens of deadly opioids, despite hundreds of research studies proving its medical use and relative safety. The WHO has now recommended that cannabis should be completely removed from this restrictive category.
Under these new recommendations, THC and dronabinol (a synthetically derived THC medicine) would be moved to Schedule I, the least restrictive of the UN's drug categories. The organization has also recommended that cannabis extracts and tinctures be removed from the Schedule I category, since many of these products contain no THC and are non-intoxicating. The WHO has also recommended that CBD products containing THC concentrations of 0.2 percent THC or less be completely removed from every drug schedule, making them completely legal.
Remarkably, the US government now supports removing cannabis from Schedule IV, despite its longstanding prohibition of cannabis. “It’s extremely significant that the United States is supporting a recommendation to remove cannabis from Schedule IV, which strongly discourages medical uses of cannabis, even if it doesn’t outright prohibit it,” said John Walsh, director of drug policy for the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), to Marijuana Moment.
But although the US is backing the rescheduling, federal officials have asked other member nations to sign on to a joint statement agreeing that global prohibition against recreational pot use will remain in full effect. In the statement, the US is asking other nations to acknowledge “the high rates of public health problems arising from cannabis use and the global extent of such problems.”
As monumental as a “yes” vote would be, it would amount to only one small step towards global cannabis reform. Although cannabis would be moved to the least restrictive of the UN's drug schedules, it still remains listed as a controlled substance. And in its proposed joint agreement, the US is also asking member nations to agree that the UN should not prevent member nations from continuing to enforce their own prohibition laws, no matter how draconian those measures might be.
In a recent media statement, a coalition of drug policy advocates warned that “profound concerns have been raised around leaving cannabis in Schedule I of the 1961 Convention,” Marijuana Moment reports. “This recommendation is at odds with The WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence’s clear finding that cannabis was less harmful than other drugs included in that schedule (heroin and cocaine).”
But although the proposed reforms are far less progressive than many would hope, they would still go a long way toward promoting the global acceptance of medical marijuana. Rescheduling cannabis would remove obstacles making it difficult for scientists to conduct research on the medical uses of pot, and could also make it easier for countries to import and export medical cannabis products.
The CND was originally scheduled to vote on the WHO recommendations in March, but postponed the vote until this week in order to grant nations additional time to consider the ramifications of global cannabis reform. The vote remains on track for this week, but considering the fact that at least a third of all member nations are firmly opposed to cannabis reform, it is uncertain how the vote will pan out.