On December 2, 2020, the United Nations’ Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), voted to reclassify Cannabis and Cannabis resin from its current listing in Schedule IV (alongside dangerous drugs such as heroin, fentanyl analogues and other opioids) to Schedule I (which are drugs still subject to international control, but have demonstrated therapeutic uses, such as morphine and cocaine). This proposal was finally presented for a vote at the United Nations more than two years after the World Health Organization (WHO) first presented its recommendations to alter the status of Cannabis in global drug control treaties in January 2019.
Consequently, Cannabis and its derivatives will soon be listed as a Schedule I controlled substance (least dangerous category) on international treaties, rather than being listed in both Schedules I and IV (the most dangerous category). Although the vote was largely symbolic and had very few practical implications, this vote represented a major win for Cannabis advocates around the world. The removal of Cannabis from Schedule IV meant that the United Nations finally accepted the proposition that Cannabis is not “liable to produce ill-effects” on the scale of other drugs in Schedule IV, and that Cannabis has significant potential therapeutic value.
Despite this hopeful news, Cannabis still remains a Schedule I substance under international treaties. And this vote to reschedule Cannabis does not immediately legalize or deschedule the plant or its derivative substances anywhere in the world. However, the United States representative to the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, Ethan Glick, summed up the potential for the symbolic vote this way:
This action has the potential to stimulate global research into the therapeutic potential and public health effects of Cannabis and to attract additional investigators to the field, including those who may have been deterred by the Schedule IV status.
For more than 60 years, Cannabis and its related extracts, tinctures, isomers and analogues have been subject to international control by member states by way of inclusion in the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, as amended by the 1972 Protocol (Schedules I & IV), the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971 (Schedule I & II), and the Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988. The inclusion of a substance in a specific schedule mandates the control measures that member-countries must apply when handling the respective substances.
Reclassification of Cannabis and its resin will remove some international procedural barriers to research and development of Cannabis-based medical products. However, the change in status of Cannabis will not affect its non-medical use or promote legalization. Cannabis and Cannabis resin will still be carefully controlled by international law and is still classified as having a similar degree of abuse and dependence potential as medicines such as morphine and oxycodone. Despite such concerns, more than 50 countries have medicinal Cannabis programs, and Canada, Uruguay, Portugal and 15 states within the United States have legalized its adult use.
PROPOSED CHANGES REJECTED BY THE UNITED NATIONS
While the CND voted to accept the WHO’s primary recommendation on the reclassification of Cannabis and resin, they did not accept further recommendations to change the classification of other Cannabis-related substances. These proposals included the following:
- Rejected a proposal to move THC and Dronabinol (synthetic Delta 9 THC) and its stereoisomers from Schedule I
- Rejected a proposal to delete extracts and tinctures of Cannabis from Schedule I
- Rejected a proposed footnote to Schedule I to define preparations containing predominantly Cannabidiol (a non-psychoactive substance) or less than .2 percent Delta-9 THC, as non-controlled substances under international law
As a side note, the United States maintains that neither CBD or hemp (Cannabis containing less than .3 percent of THC) should be controlled by international treaties. In 2018, the United States Department of Justice’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) placed a marijuana-derived drug, Epidiolex, in Schedule V of the Controlled Substances Act. The medication is an oral solution containing purified CBD, approved as a treatment option for severe forms of epilepsy by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in June 2018.
The FDA has also previously approved drugs that contain synthetic THC, or dronabinol, including Marinol and Syndros. The DEA classified those prescription medications as Schedule III and Schedule II, respectively. But Epidiolex is unique because its primary ingredient is a natural component of cannabis – CBD. Last year, the FDA determined that CBD does not meet the criteria for federal control, except for the fact that international treaties to which the U.S. is party, could potentially be construed as requiring it.