For the first time ever, the United Nations (UN) is launching an in-depth review of whether marijuana is properly classified under international drug treaties.
In a related development, the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) has announced that cannabidiol (CBD), a compound in marijuana that is increasingly used for medical purposes, does not warrant being controlled under the global agreements.
“The Committee recommended that preparations considered to be pure CBD should not be scheduled within the International Drug Control Conventions,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus wrote in a letter announcing the moves. “The Committee concluded that there is sufficient evidence to proceed to a Critical Review” of marijuana, hashish, cannabis extracts and THC.
That broader review is set for November, and follows the results of an initial pre-review conducted by WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) in June.
“A pre-review is the first step of the ECDD’s assessment process, where it is determined whether there is enough robust scientific information to proceed to the next step, called a critical review,” an explanatory document accompanying the new letter reads. “This initial evaluation is also an opportunity to identify gaps in the available scientific data. A critical review is carried out when there is sufficient scientific evidence to allow the ECDD to make informed an recommendation that the substance be placed under international control, or if its level of control should be changed.”
The reviews include analyses of the chemistry, pharmacology, toxicology, epidemiology and therapeutic use of the substances.
If the UN ultimately decides to change marijuana’s status under international law, it would trigger a review on U.S. scheduling, according to provisions of the Controlled Substances Act.
“Thankfully the World Health Organization has accepted the challenge of evaluating the placement of cannabis in the 1962 Single Convention treaty,” Michael Krawitz of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access told Marijuana Moment. “Cannabis placement in the treaty was done in the absence of scientific evaluation and has provided the basis for a moral campaign against drugs by the USA for many decades. Since our work on medical access to cannabis has been based upon scientific inquiry we know that any rational assessment of the evidence leads the observer to understand cannabis indeed has proven medicinal value and, compared to other medicines, has profoundly fewer negative side effects.”
Here’s what the UN experts have determined so far:
“There are no case reports of abuse or dependence relating to the use of pure CBD. No public health problems have been associated with CBD use,” an annex attached to Ghebreyesus’s letter reads, noting that research has shown it to be effective in treating epilepsy. “CBD has been found to be generally well tolerated with a good safety profile.”
“Cannabidiol (CBD) is not specifically listed in the schedules of the 1961, 1971 or 1988 United Nations International Drug Control Conventions… There is no evidence that CBD as a substance is liable to similar abuse and similar ill-effects as substances in the 1961 or 1971 Conventions such as cannabis or THC, respectively. The Committee recommended that preparations considered to be pure CBD should not be scheduled.”
When it comes to whole-plant marijuana and resin, ECDD’s pre-review found that while “adverse effects” are possible and that cannabis can cause physical dependence, its current categorization in international treaties “may not appear to be consistent with the criteria.”
“Several countries permit the use of cannabis for the treatment of medical conditions such as back pain, sleep disorders, depression, post-injury pain, and multiple sclerosis,” the document says. “The evidence presented to the Committee did not indicate that cannabis plant and cannabis resin were liable to produce ill-effects similar to these other substances that are in Schedule IV of the 1961 Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The inclusion of cannabis and cannabis resin in Schedule IV may not appear to be consistent with the criteria for Schedule IV.”
“The Committee concluded that there is sufficient evidence to proceed to critical review of cannabis plant and cannabis resin at a future ECDD meeting and explore further the appropriateness of their current scheduling within the 1961 Convention.”
With respect to extracts and tinctures of cannabis, the committee similarly identified health issues associated with consumption, but said “there is limited evidence of a withdrawal syndrome upon abrupt cessation.”
The committee also looked at THC itself and isomers of THC, and recommended that both be subject to critical reviews in November.
Ghebreyesus’s letter is addressed to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who will be the ultimate recipient of WHO’s recommendations on cannabis and related extracts and compounds following the review.
Guterres was prime minister of Portugal when that nation decriminalized all drugs, a move he touted last year in an address to the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs. After the critical reviews are in, that body will vote on whether to alter cannabis’s status under the international treaties.