Cannabis is removed by UN from the list of ‘most dangerous substances’, what are the implications?

Cannabis is removed by UN from the list of ‘most dangerous substances’, what are the implications?
(Getty Images)

The UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) voted to remove cannabis and cannabis resin (a byproduct) from the list that categorized it as one of the “most dangerous substances”. So far, cannabis and derivatives of cannabis were maintained in Schedule IV of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. This schedule is for those drugs which are labeled as being “particularly harmful” such as heroin. They are also considered to have “extremely limited medical or therapeutic value”.

The vote passed with a majority of 27 votes for and 25 against with one abstention. The US, the UK, Germany, Australia, Germany, India, France, Spain and South Africa were among those who voted in favor. Countries, including Brazil, China, Afghanistan, Russia, Egypt, Japan, Iraq and Pakistan voted against. The UN vote implies that cannabis and cannabis resin are no longer classified as among the most harmful substances and are acknowledged as having medical benefits. According to experts, it may ease restrictions on research into marijuana’s therapeutic use.

“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 of cannabis,” stated US representative at the vote Ethan Glick. Glick, who is a counselor for UN affairs at the US Mission to International Organizations in Vienna, emphasized that the legitimate medical use of a cannabis preparation has been established through scientific research, and cannabis no longer meets the criterion for placement in Schedule IV.

“Cannabidiol has not demonstrated abuse potential, and it is not our position that cannabidiol should be or is under the control of the international drug conventions,” said Glick. He, however, added that cannabis and cannabinoids are not benign substances, and there is “robust scientific evidence of negative and lasting health effects,” especially to pregnant women and adolescents.

The moves after the World Health Organisation or WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence made six recommendations in January 2019 to be voted on by the UN for subsequent adoption. One of the suggestions was to delete cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV of the 1961 Convention. The WHO panel had noted that while other substances that are included in both Schedules I and IV — fentanyl analogs, heroin, and other opioids — are considered especially dangerous, and their use is associated with a significant risk of death, cannabis use is not associated with such risk.

According to experts, the move may ease restrictions on research into marijuana’s therapeutic use (Getty Images)


The WHO report explained that 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. Besides, 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 this, 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 research and development of cannabis-related preparation for medical use, reasoned experts. They concluded that the inclusion of cannabis and cannabis resin in Schedule IV “is not consistent with the criteria” for a drug to be placed in Schedule IV.

The WHO committee, however, noted the “high rates of public health problems arising from cannabis use and the global extent of such problems” and for these reasons recommended that cannabis and cannabis resin continue to be included in Schedule I.

According to Conor O'Brien of Prohibition Partners, market intelligence and consultancy firm, this is a “major win for cannabis advocates around the world with considerable symbolic and some practical implications for cannabis regulation”. “Removal of cannabis from schedule IV means that the UN accepts the opinion of the WHO 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,” adds O'Brien.

Welcoming the decision, a group of drug policy advocacy organizations said in a statement, “The UN finally acknowledges the therapeutic value of cannabis, thus strengthening the international imperative for ensuring access to cannabis-based medicines. This is welcome news for the millions of people who use cannabis for therapeutic purposes and reflects the reality of the growing market for cannabis-based medicinal products.”

Substances classified as Schedule IV are a subset of Schedule I drugs. This implies that they are labeled as “substances with addictive properties, presenting a serious risk of abuse.” Cannabis and cannabis resin will still be subjected to restrictions under the Schedule I category. The group expressed “serious concerns” regarding this.

“This reform alone is far from adequate given that cannabis remains incorrectly scheduled at the international level. The original decision to prohibit cannabis lacked scientific basis and was rooted in colonial prejudice and racism. It disregarded the rights and traditions of communities that have been growing and using cannabis for medicinal, therapeutic, religious, and cultural purposes for centuries and has led to millions being criminalized and incarcerated across the globe. The review process has been a missed opportunity to correct that historical error,” stressed Ann Fordham, executive director of the International Drug Policy Consortium.

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