Will the UN point of view on cannabis be modified or not?

Will it come to a vote in March or not? To date it is unclear whether the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) will adopt the six recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding the reclassification of cannabis. The European Commission advises EU Member States to reject one of the recommendations and to postpone the vote on other two recommendations. Does this mean the loss of an historic moment, where cannabis is ascribed medicinal value by the highest health organisation for the first time in history?

The Dutch expert on UN Drugs Conventions, Martin Jelsma, associated with the Transnational Institute, doesn’t think so. “In case one or several WHO recommendations are not adopted, countries may continue with medicinal cannabis. That happens anyway.” In addition, member states should not question the scientific opinion of the Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD), the advisory body of the WHO. “The WHO’s recognition and scientific substantiation of medicinal applications remain in force, even if the recommendations are not adopted.“

Will the UN point of view on cannabis be modified or not?
  1. Extracts and tinctures are removed from Schedule I of the 1961 Convention.
  2. THC (dronabinol) is added to Schedule I of the 1961 Convention under the category Cannabis & Resin. Subsequently, THC is removed from Schedule II of the 1971 Convention.
  3. THC isomers are added to Schedule I of the 1961 Convention under the category Cannabis & Resin. Subsequently, THC isomer is removed from the 1971 Convention.
  4. Pure CBD and CBD preparations with maximum 0.2% THC are not included in the international conventions on controlling drugs
  5. If they comply with certain criteria, pharmaceutical preparations that contain delta-9-THC should be added to Schedule III of the Convention of 1961, recognising the unlikelihood of abuse and for which a number of exemptions apply.
  6. Cannabis and cannabis resin are removed from Schedule IV, the category reserved for the most dangerous substances, in the 1961 Convention.

Back in 2018, the WHO issued an historic recommendation to reclassify cannabis at international level. In doing so, the WHO gave a clear signal that cannabis has therapeutic value. The final link in this process of change, where 53 countries may vote on the recommendations, was postponed last year. Now the official vote by the UN body that determines which drugs come under international control, is planned for the first week of March.

One of the recommendations is the removal of cannabis from list IV, intended for dangerous drugs without relevant medicinal usages. According to Mr Jelsma, this recommendation is not at all as “ground-breaking” as is supposed. “The WHO still sees cannabis as a public health hazard. That is why the WHO recommends removing it from Schedule IV only and not from Schedule I, the same list for cannabis, opium, heroin and cocaine. Even if the WHO recommendations are adopted cannabis is still on the same list as heroin and cocaine and all criminal treaty provisions remain in force for cannabis. So the WHO does not in any way follow the distinction between “hard” and “soft” drugs such as in the Netherlands and explicitly confirms with this package of recommendations that cannabis should be kept as strictly controlled as cocaine.”

Lack of clarity

Mr Jelsma, who keeps a close eye on the change process of the UN Drugs Conventions, said there are many critical questions regarding the consequences of the new classification. “There is still lack of clarity about the annual reporting obligations. Each year, every member state should report the use and trade in all types of drugs, including medicinal cannabis, to the INCB (International Narcotics Control Board, ed). The recommendation to transfer the substance THC from the 1971 Convention to the 1961 Convention doesn’t make that process any easier.”

Administrative problems

Another important WHO recommendation is to remove products with cannabidiol (CBD) and less than 0.2 percent THC from the Schedule completely. Mr Jelsma fears that the control on cannabis will actually become more stringent and that this will generate administrative problems. He said “Not everyone is aware of this. Indirectly, transferring THC to the 1961 Convention means that even the plant material that contains THC will have to be controlled in the same way. The Convention does not distinguish between the content and the materials they were extracted from. It means that more will have to be controlled, including leaves and stems. The recommendation was supposed to be an improvement, but if you scrutinize it, it actually deteriorates the situation.” Countries with a major hemp industry, don’t need that at all. Hemp is cultivated for its low THC content and high CBD concentrations. With the extremely low threshold criterion of 0.2%, many hemp products and derivatives are likely to fall under the stricter control regime. “I believe that this is one of the possible consequences that was overlooked by the ECDD. This was never the intention”, according to Mr Jelsma.

Majority

Fate is in the hands of 53 countries with voting rights. If they proceed to a vote in March, the question remains as to how those 53 countries will vote. This will depend strongly on whether a country has a medicinal-cannabis programme or not. A total of 24 of the 53 countries have legislation on this issue or have plans to issue legislation. That is just not enough to achieve the necessary 50% majority required for an amendment to the 1961 treaty. The further complicating factor is that an amendment to the 1971 treaty requires a majority of at least two thirds. Although the EU*, including the United Kingdom, represents nearly a quarter of the total number of countries with voting rights, a majority is not guaranteed. Mr Jelsma is concerned, as there is a significant chance that EU countries will vote as one block and the voting advice of the European Commission has quite a few flaws. “The vote will be extremely important, because some WHO recommendations can worsen the current situation.”

UN Conventions

The CND, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, is a UN body that determines which drugs come under international control. The CND regularly amends the schedules of substances that are included in the drugs conventions on the basis of recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO), which in turn is advised by its Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD).

There are three important UN Conventions that control drugs throughout the world:

In the current 1961 treaty, cannabis and cannabis preparations are in Schedule IV. The drugs in this Schedule are a partial selection of the drugs in Schedule I that are considered the most dangerous and have the least medicinal value. Heroin is therefore placed on both lists.

In recent years, the WHO has started up a quiet but powerful change process behind the scenes. The process started in 2016 with the scientific assessment of cannabis by ECDD as its highlight.

Office of Medicinal Cannabis

Internationally it was agreed that countries undertake to protect their citizens against cannabis abuse, production is only permitted for medical or research purposes and marketing only by a cannabis agency managed by the government. In the Netherlands that is organised through the Office of Medicinal Cannabis.

*) As of 1 January 2020, the following 13 EU Member States have a voting right on the CND: Belgium, Germany, France, Hungary, Italy, Croatia, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland, Spain, the Czech Republic, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Important dates

  • CND intersessional in Vienna on Monday 17 February where the basic decision must be made about the vote in March
  • Horizontal Working Party on Drugs (HDG) in Brussels on Wednesday 19 February, where the EU must determine the joint position
  • The final vote of the CND from Monday 2 to Friday 6 March 2020 in Vienna
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