Global health experts at the United Nations are recommending that cannabis and its key components be formally rescheduled under international drug treaties.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is calling for whole-plant marijuana, as well as cannabis resin, to be removed from Schedule IV—the most restrictive category of a 1961 drug convention signed by countries from around the world.
The body also wants delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and its isomers to be completely removed from a separate 1971 drug treaty and instead added to Schedule I of the 1961 convention, according to a WHO document that has not yet been formally released but was circulated by cannabis reform advocates.
Marijuana and cannabis resin would also remain in Schedule I of the 1961 treaty—they are currently dual-designated in Schedules I and IV, with IV being reserved for those substances that are seen as particularly harmful with limited medical benefits. (That’s different from the U.S. federal system, under which Schedule I is where the supposedly most dangerous and restricted drugs—like marijuana, heroin and LSD—are classified.)
WHO is also moving to make clear that cannabidiol and CBD-focused preparations containing no more than 0.2 percent THC are “not under international control” at all. It had previously been the case that CBD wasn’t scheduled under the international conventions, but the new recommendation is to make that even more clear.
Cannabis extracts and tinctures would be removed from Schedule I of the 1961 treaty under the recommendations, and compounded pharmaceutical preparations containing THC would be placed in Schedule III of that convention.
The practical effects of the changes would be somewhat limited, in that they wouldn’t allow countries to legalize marijuana and still be in strict compliance with international treaties, but their political implications are hard to overstate.
Taken together, recommendations, if adopted, would represent a formal recognition that the world’s governing bodies have effectively been wrong about marijuana’s harms and therapeutic benefits for decades. WHO’s new position comes at a time when a growing number of countries are moving to reform their cannabis policies. As such, a shift at the UN could embolden additional nations to scale back or repeal their prohibition laws—even though legalization for non-medical or non-scientific reasons would still technically violate the global conventions.
“The placement of cannabis in the 1961 treaty, in the absence of scientific evidence, was a terrible injustice,” said Michael Krawitz, a U.S. Air Force veteran and legalization advocate who has pushed for international reforms. “Today the World Health Organization has gone a long way towards setting the record straight. “It is time for us all to support the World Health Organization’s recommendations and ensure politics don’t trump science.”
The WHO recommendations were initially expected to be released at a meeting in Vienna in December, but the announcement was delayed for unknown reasons. The proposals will next go before the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs, potentially as soon as March, where 53 member nations will have the opportunity to vote on accepting or rejecting them.
A number of countries that have historically opposed drug policy reforms, such as Russia and China, are expected to oppose the change in cannabis’s classification.
Other nations like Canada and Uruguay, which have legalize marijuana in contravention of the current treaties, are likely to back the reform, as are a number of European and South American nations that allow medical cannabis.
It is not clear how the U.S. will vote. While the country has historically pressured other nations not to reform their own marijuana policies, the reality of legalization in a growing number of U.S. states has made that kind of pressure increasingly untenable in recent years.
The Trump administration moved last year to revoke Obama-era prosecutorial guidance that generally urged non-intervention with local marijuana laws. But the president himself has voiced support for letting states set their own cannabis policies without interference, and attorney general nominee William Barr said during his confirmation hearing that he would not “go after” companies relying on the now-rescinded cannabis guidance.
Thus, it remains to be seen how the administration will direct its UN representative when it comes time to weigh in on the proposed changes to marijuana’s status under international law.
If the recommendation on CBD is adopted, however, it could potentially have far-reaching implications in the U.S. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration (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.
“If treaty obligations do not require control of CBD, or if the international controls on CBD change in the future, this recommendation will need to be promptly revisited,” FDA wrote, adding that the U.S. scheduling placement of CBD should be “revisited promptly” if international treaty obligations changed. Under the clarification being recommended by WHO, no one would be able to argue that CBD is globally scheduled.
The WHO’s new cannabis rescheduling recommendations come in the form of a letter, dated January 24, from the Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the body’s director general, to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
Guterres was Portugal’s prime minister when the country enacted a policy of decriminalizing drug possession, a move he touted in a speech to the UN’s Commission on Narcotics Drugs last year.