Delay Vote On Cannabis Reclassification – Chair Of UN Commission On Narcotic Drugs Recommends

The UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs appears set to delay any consideration this year of a recent World Health Organization recommendation to reschedule the status of cannabis and cannabis-related substances from “particularly dangerous” to a less dangerous category – with no timeline indicated for when the Commission might actually take up the contentious issue.

A draft decision [pdf] submitted to the 62nd Session of the UN Commission, which opened today in Vienna, would postpone review of the WHO recommendations “in order to provide States with more time to consider the recommendations.” The postponement failed to say when the matter might be reviewed again.

The postponement came even as UNAIDS issued a call to UN member states to decriminalize personal use, purchase and cultivation of now-illicit drugs, and anchor national policies towards drug users within a health and human rights framework.

In January, WHO had recommended that cannabis and cannabis resin be removed from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs – a classification of drugs with “particularly dangerous properties”, including narcotics such as fentanyl, heroin and other opioids.

The WHO recommendations were transmitted in a letter [pdf] from WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Gheyebresus to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres (HPW, Global Strategies, 7 February 2019).

“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,” stated the WHO recommendations, from a November 2018 meeting of the WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD).

“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.”

There has been a surge of interest over the past decade in the therapeutic use of cannabis. But researchers have expressed growing concerns that extremely tight restrictions on the growth, sale and trade in cannabis, as a result of the Schedule IV international classification, stymies legitimate medical research. In August 2018, a new cannabidiol-derived (CBD) oral solution, Epidiolex®, was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for treatment of certain forms of severe childhood epilepsy, further highlighting the medical potential of certain active ingredients of the cannabis plant.

The WHO recommended that cannabis should, however, remain in the Convention’s less restrictive category of Schedule 1 controlled substances, due to “adverse effects associated with long-term cannabis use, including increased risk of mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression and psychotic illness.”

There had already been speculation that the landmark WHO recommendation was likely to be postponed at this week’s UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs session, due to push-back from some countries, including the United States, which object to the gradual decriminalization and legitimation of cannabis use.

However, the draft decision submitted by the Chair to the Commission calling for postponement attributed the delay to a procedural rule which calls for a three-month review period for draft decisions before they are brought to the floor. The WHO recommendation, transmitted only in January, didn’t make that deadline for this week’s 62nd Commission session, which brings together about 2000 representatives of UN member states, civil society and other UN agencies.

Image Credits: Taki Lau.

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