On the road to medical recognition
This new regulation is the result of a recommendation from the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2019, which suggested that the UN reconsider its position on marijuana. Indeed, since 1961, cannabis and its resin were included in Schedule IV of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs list, along with heroin and other opioids, which are often lethal. With the support of scientific studies, WHO suggested to the UN that cannabis be removed from this restriction in Schedule IV. These Schedules provide information on the medical usefulness of a substance in relation to the possible harm it could cause. Removing cannabis from the most stringent Schedule would result in a relaxation of international controls on medical marijuana.
A very close vote
The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), the body that decides which substances are considered drugs under international law, approved on Wednesday, December 2, 2020, a reclassification of cannabis and its resin in international conventions, recognizing its medical usefulness. The commission voted to move cannabis and cannabis resin to the list of Schedule I drugs, which also includes cocaine, fentanyl, morphine, methadone, opium and oxycodone, an opiate analgesic sold under the name OxyContin. The CND has paved the way for the recognition of the medicinal and therapeutic potential of this substance, although its use for non-medical and non-scientific purposes remains illegal. This vote therefore does not authorize UN member countries to legalize marijuana under the international drug control system. On the other hand, cannabis can be transformed into a drug, such as opium or morphine, without the UN discouraging its use as it has been done until now.
The decision was not without controversy. In fact, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs has 53 member states and the vote was close: 27 in favor and 25 against, with 1 abstention from Ukraine. The United States and European countries were among those who voted in favour, while China, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan and Russia were opposed. Some countries, such as France, had opposed the WHO recommendation of 2019, but finally changed their minds during the commission’s vote.
A symbolic declassification
International drug control agencies often show inertia, and rarely does a vote move the lines so clearly. Indeed, this is the first time since 1916 that the therapeutic value of cannabis has been recognized internationally, despite the fact that for more than a century international drug conventions have maintained that this substance is dangerous and of no medical interest. Finally, in 2020, the UN will recognize the contrary. This decision will not lead to an immediate relaxation of international controls and each country will have its own legislation regarding the use of cannabis. Already many countries around the world have decriminalized the possession of marijuana, such as Canada and Uruguay, which have legalized the sale and recreational use of cannabis, as well as 15 U.S. states. But those countries that legalize cannabis will always violate international law. On the other hand, the reclassification of marijuana is a symbolic springboard for future reforms, as many countries are using international conventions as a guide for establishing their laws.
If some of you think that this has paved the way for the legalization of pot around the world, it hasn’t. On the other hand, the declassification of cannabis and its derivatives may have a real impact on future international laws.