he World Health Organization (WHO) wasn’t a household name. That was, until it became the subject of public health and political controversy surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Aside from mitigating global pandemics, the WHO plays a significant role in the consideration of cannabis as a controlled substance on a global basis through the United Nations (UN). In January 2019, the WHO expressly recommended that cannabis be rescheduled and also provided clarity to its treatment of cannabinoids, like CBD. While the UN has delayed taking action on the recommendation, it begs the question of whether or not we’re on the verge of global cannabis policy reform.
The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 is an international treaty prohibiting production and supply of specific drugs and of drugs with similar effects — except under governmental license for specific purposes, such as medical treatment and research.
Under the Single Convention, Cannabis (not “marihuana” or “marijuana”) is categorized alongside cocaine and heroin as a dangerous substance with no medicinal benefit and a high potential for abuse. The UN Convention doesn’t distinguish between marijuana or hemp or make other legal distinctions that exist in the United States, but defines the substance as “cannabis” and generally comments on the legality of its various uses. This excludes most “industrial” uses of cannabis, or what we think of as non-psychoactive hemp in the United States, from UN control. These industrial uses can include applications for textiles, bioplastics, pulp for paper, and biofuels, just to name a few.
The Single Convention is not self-executing, meaning that signatory countries must pass domestic legislation to fulfill their treaty obligations. As a result, the U.S. passed the Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”) in 1971. Departing from the Single Convention, “cannabis” is not included anywhere in the CSA. Rather, “marihuana” and other items are listed on separate “schedules” within the CSA.
The spelling of “Marihuana” with an “h” is significant. The plant was traditionally referred to as cannabis, as set forth in the Single Convention. But “marijuana” or “marihuana” were colloquial terms borrowed from Mexican Spanish, as described by the Brookings Institution in Marijuana: A Short History. They carry racist undertones well documented from the early days of Henry Anslinger’s campaign to prohibit cannabis in the United States. Under the CSA, “Marihuana” is a Schedule I drug “with no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” — similar to the Single Convention.
The U.N. created the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) to monitor and amend the designations assigned to substances, which is where the WHO comes in. It’s required by international law to research medical and scientific benefits and risks associated with substances such as cannabis. In turn, the CND implements the WHO’s recommendations when making scheduling decisions regarding a plant or substance. So how significant was the WHO’s recent recommendations on cannabis to the CND?
In early 2019, the WHO recommended the CND reschedule cannabis and that cannabis “resin be deleted from Schedule 4 of the Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs (1961),” (the most restrictive category, like the CSA’s Schedule I). In addition, the report recommended that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) be “deleted from the Convention on Psychotropic Substances (1971) and added to Schedule 1 of the Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs (1961).” Regarding CBD, the report recommended that cannabis extracts containing up to .2% THC not be scheduled within the drug control conventions. This signified a monumental change and the codifying of the medicinal value of cannabis. Further, it provided clarity around the international trade of CBD products.
Nonetheless, policy change never moves as quickly as one would like. Presently, the CND is planning to move forward with a vote on these recommendations this December at UN Headquarters in Vienna, Austria.
In December 2018, I attended the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna thanks to the organizing efforts of For Alternative Approaches to Addiction, Think & do tank (FAAAT). While at that time major cannabis reform commitments were expected, no policy changes came to fruition and the international trade of CBD remains hindered by the lack of action.
In 2020, the CND again delayed a decision. Absent further delays or postponements, this December will bring the day of reckoning. Will the WHO’s recommendations finally take effect?
Not so fast. Even if the CND enacts the recommendations, the legality of cannabis won’t change. Further, it doesn’t remove global cannabis controls from the Single Convention. The complexities of implementing the recommendations present challenges on every front.
Here’s an example: if the UN were to adopt these changes, or even if the Single Convention were abolished in its entirety (highly unlikely), its tenets continue to be ingrained in the United States’s CSA and the domestic laws of its numerous signatories. Until those laws are also repealed, amended, altered or otherwise modified, nothing will change overnight because of the political will and conflict in signatory countries.
When I examine the WHO recommendations closely, I think that most would have little impact on international drug controls and some could actually tighten requirements. Tremendous hurdles remain in signatory countries relating to technology or human resources to ensure compliance with some of the recommendations. The most obvious surround detecting specific THC content and/or the cannabinoid makeup of extracts from cannabis. The recommendations may require the creation of additional controls. In order to comply, the UN needs to set international standardized testing for THC and applicable control requirements, so that national authorities can monitor and report information to the UN.
These standards, while creating clarity, would also create a tremendous burden on member states upon implementation. And different regulatory and licensing standards would need to be present for the cultivation and/or extraction of CBD and or delta-9-THC for industrial purposes as described in the 1961 Convention.
While these policy considerations by global agencies bode well for cannabis reform, they’ll take years to implement. And that may lead to tightened controls and additional levels of regulation – perhaps not the outcome activists and lobbyists had envisioned for international cannabis policy reform.
But it’s a start. Progress takes patience and progress has definitely been made. Cannabis policy reform and the recognition of the plant’s potential, based on facts and science, have created a monumental global movement. Reform won't happen overnight, but it’s come too far to stop now. A whole pail of water couldn’t cool it down.