On Wednesday, December 2, 2020, the UN voted to decriminalize cannabis for medical use. The bill, Recommendation 5.1, passed by a narrow margin of 27-25, with one-member abstaining. This vote removes cannabis and cannabis resin from the list of controlled substances listed under Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. While this move was initiated by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United States, it was hotly contested by Russia, who called cannabis "the most abused drug globally."
The 1961 convention was primarily pushed by the US, and led to a global moratorium on cannabis research, and also led to drastic and often draconian anti-drug laws in countries throughout the world, especially in Thailand and other South East Asian countries. For example, most Asian countries had no laws regarding cannabis or any other drugs prior to 1912. In that year, the League of Nations (later replaced by the UN) passed the Opium Convention Act of 1912. A series of acts followed, eventually culminating in the 1961 convention, which led to extreme laws being passed domestically in each respective country. This has led to widespread imprisonment globally, and in Thailand the extra-judicial executions of more than 3,000 people in 2003, and now in the Philippines more than 12,000 killed since PM Rodrigo Duterte’s election.
So, now that the UN has started to reverse their stance on cannabis, will we see new research opportunities and a waning of the war on drugs? Probably not. At least not now or because of this resolution, but it is an important step in the process, so let’s look at what this bill included, and what it will change.
What is did the UN vote on?
Recommendation 5.1 is a section of the most recent version of the WHO Report of the 41st Expert Committee on Drug Dependence. The document outlines that the group is concerned only with cannabis flower and resin that contains THC. It then goes on to outline the negative effects of cannabis, many of which have already debunked. They cited the disproven belief that legalization increases vehicle fatalities, increases adolescent drug use, or the fallacy that cannabis consumption increases incidences of mental illness ].
So, when reading the report, one gets the notion that there is still a long way to go in pushing out the propaganda and pseudoscience of the last hundred years. But, the report does show a sign of progressive thinking, when it give an allowance for the fact that cannabis is also used medicinally in some countries. Although they trusted the limited and often exaggerated evidence on the dangers of cannabis, it is quick to point out that the science is limited regarding its benefits. But for the first time, did admit that the reasoning for scheduling cannabis as both schedule I and IV where wrong.
There are several other drugs that are also Scheduled as both section I and IV, they are heroin, fentanyl analogues, and several other opioids which are especially dangerous and addictive. The report pointed out that, although cannabis is still considered addictive by clinical diagnostic guidelines such as DSM-5 and ICD-10, it is not in the same class as those other substances. It felt that it should not be considered a schedule IV substance (those that are already schedule I, have severe ill effects, and have no therapeutic use) and instead should be schedule I or II. Finally, based on what they called “the high rates of public health problems arising from cannabis use and the global extent of such problems,” they recommended it be listed as Schedule I. They furthermore recommended that CBD be removed from scheduling completely, and that ‘cannabis’ be replaced with ‘Tetrahydrocannabinol’ (THC). This was the report, written and approved by the WHO in November of 2018, and voted on by the UN the other day, with only one recommendation passing, and by a very narrow margin.
What does this vote mean for cannabis research?
Probably the most meaningful impact this UN cannabis vote will have will be on research. Medical researchers have been stuck in a sort of limbo state, being told that there is not enough evidence to prove that cannabis has therapeutic value, but then not being allowed to investigate its therapeutic effects. This was likely the strongest reasoning for the WHO’s change in recommendations, and should greatly accelerate progress in the field. But accelerate from what state? Today, most cannabis research comes from a very small number of research centers, primarily in the US, Canada, and Israel. Through rescheduling, cannabis research could be opened up globally, and thus facilitate more controlled trails.
Already, cannabis has shown in a limited number of trials to be effective at alleviating the symptoms of cancer treatment, or of many diseases such as multiple sclerosis, dementia, and pain. Furthermore, CBD is being explored for pain, sleep. The research into the endocannabinoid system is revolutionizing the modern day field of medicine . With restrictions being lifted, these investigations could take place on much larger scales, and with a wider variety of test subjects and cannabis strains.
What will this mean for Cannabis possession?
It is still unclear who national laws will change due to this recommendation. What is clear, is that most national laws where influenced by the UN’s successive conventions on narcotics. As published by NPR, during the arguments at the UN, The Grupo de Mujeres de la Argentina Foro de HIV, Mujeres y Familia stated that in Argentina, HIV patients are "unjustly deprived of their liberty because they fight every day to calm their pains naturally from this plant - as alternative and traditional medicine." The weight of the US prison population was also on many folk’s minds.
Hopefully, with the UN reducing their strict regulations than other countries will feel more free to change their domestic policies, but that is yet to be realized, and is probably still a long way off for most countries.
What else does this vote mean?
This UN cannabis vote did remove the plant from schedule IV, but it did not approve any of the other WHOrecommendations. They did not vote to remove CBD as a scheduled substance, despite it being non-psychoactive and ruled safe by the US FDA. The UN also did not pass the resolution to remove cannabis from schedule I and instead replace it with THC.
So, although many sites today are proclaiming this as a major win, I disagree. Although it does show some cracks in the dam, the foundation of cannabis prohibition is still well intact. The only thing to celebrate is the new access to research, which still is a long way out, and will require many changes within each country. But it is also important to remember that the fight for cannabis legalization in places like Colorado and Washington State started with very small concessions and now have transformed the whole narrative of the country.