In 1961, more than 186 parties representing the world’s governing bodies signed on to the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The convention is essentially an international treaty to prohibit the production and supply of specific narcotic drugs. And under heavy U.S. pressure, the Single Convention placed the same restrictions on cannabis that it did on opium, listing marijuana as a Schedule IV drug. As defined in the treaty, Schedule IV designates a category of substances considered to have “particularly dangerous properties” in comparison to other drugs and to be “particularly liable to abuse and to produce ill effects.”
Now, more than 50 years later, the World Health Organization (WHO) is calling for cannabis and all of its key components, from cannabinoids to resins, to be formally rescheduled under the 1961 drug treaty.
What the WHO Call to Reschedule Cannabis Really Means: Governments Have Been Wrong for Decades
The WHO wants whole-plant marijuana, cannabis resin and other key constituents of the plant (like THC and CBD) removed from its Schedule IV classification in the 1961 drug convention.
While the WHO has not formally issued its recommendations, a leaked document details what rescheduling cannabis would entail. The proposal would eliminate whole-plant marijuana and cannabis resin from the Schedule IV classification but retain its Schedule I designation. Under the Single Convention, governments must limit Schedule I drugs to medical and scientific research purposes, among other requirements.
Furthermore, the WHO wants the main psychoactive constituent of cannabis, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), completely removed from a separate 1971 drug treaty and added to the Schedule I category of the 1961 convention. As for cannabidiol (CBD), a principle non-psychoactive cannabinoid with tremendous therapeutic potential, the WHO says that any CBD preparation with less than 0.2 percent THC should not fall under any international control.
But the WHO’s proposals also recognize the widespread proliferation of different types of cannabis products and preparations, like extracts, concentrates, and tinctures. Under the new recommendations, those products and pharmaceutical preparations containing THC would fall under Schedule III. The 1961 Single Convention restricts Schedule III substances the least and does not require governments to authorize their import or export.
In sum, ratification of the WHO’s proposals to reschedule cannabis would amount to one thing. Namely, an admission that for decades, the world’s governing bodies have simply been wrong on the dangers and benefits of marijuana. Indeed, many governments have already come around to this fact and have scaled back or eliminated their prohibition on cannabis.
Still Unclear How the U.S. Will Vote on WHO Proposal to Reschedule Cannabis
Globally, a cannabis revolution is taking place. It’s a discontinuous, uneven revolution. But recent years have seen the dramatic expansion of medical legalization globally and the passage of national adult-use laws in Uruguay and Canada. And that spells better odds for ratification of the WHO’s proposals. The WHO could present its proposals before the United Nation’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs as early as March 2019. At that point, the UN’s 53 member nations will be able to vote to accept or reject them.
It’s easy to predict how some member nations will vote on the proposals to reschedule cannabis. Russia and China, both countries with harsh drug laws, will likely reject the WHO initiative. Canada and Uruguay will of course back it, especially considering their legalization of cannabis contravenes the current 1961 treaty. But other nations will likely support the WHO proposals as well, especially those that have recently legalized medical use.
The X factor, however, is the United States. Back in 1961, it was at the U.S.’s insistence that the Single Convention placed cannabis under the heaviest control regime, Schedule IV. At the time, the U.S. argued the classification was necessary due to how “widely abused” cannabis was. And when researchers began to discover the medical efficacy of cannabis in the 1980s, thanks to the discovery of the human endocannabinoid system, there was no international effort to revise the 1961 treaty. This year, the WHO wants UN nations to vote to correct that discrepancy.