WHO cannabis recommendations still face uphill battle for adoption

A Dutch representative addresses the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs ‘intersessional’ meeting on the World Health Organization’s cannabis scheduling recommendations. (Photo courtesy of the CND)

The World Health Organization’s cannabis scheduling recommendations appeared to have limited support at a United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) “intersessional” meeting on Thursday in Vienna.

That means the proposals still face an uphill battle ahead of December’s expected vote.

As a result, cannabis businesses counting on the adoption of all the WHO recommendations shouldn’t get their hopes up.

While Recommendation 5.1 still has a good chance of being accepted, the situation doesn’t look promising for the other, particularly Recommendations 5.5 and 5.6.

Many of the countries that actively participated in the meeting expressed strong opposition to changing the status quo.

Most of the opponents were from Asia and Africa, with some Latin American and Caribbean countries joining them as well.

A few countries, including the United States, expressed support for only some of the six recommendations – and opposed others.

Other countries with positions seemingly in favor of one or more recommendations included Australia, Colombia, Mexico, South Africa and Switzerland. But none identified which of the six recommendations they support and which – if any – they do not.

The Mexican representative hoped the expected December vote “will not be stained by prejudgments and a short-sighted view. Instead, we must try to achieve a more just and human policy under the new times and reality.”

As noted, industry executives often celebrate the WHO recommendations as a positive step. They believe a yes vote would, for example, clarify that certain CBD products are exempt from the controls stipulated by international conventions.

But the recommendations must first be adopted before any victory can be declared. And, even if they are adopted, their potential impact is far from clear.

Most of the six cannabis scheduling recommendations would either have little impact on international drug controls or actually tighten requirements, according to an analysis by a United Nations monitoring body.

Europe position still uncertain

The representative who spoke on behalf of the European Union and its member states said they were ready to vote last March. But because those member states knew other countries were not ready, the EU countries did not oppose the postponement of the vote to December.

He said the “EU and its member states strongly believe that the right time has come to vote … respecting the commitment we collectively made last March and preserving the integrity of the international scheduling system as well as supporting scientific progress.”

But the EU position on the recommendations remains unclear.

“Taking all available information into account, we will finalize and adopt a Union position, to be expressed during the vote, on behalf of the EU, by the EU member states that are members of the CND,” the EU representative said.

At the end of 2019, the European Commission supported only two of the six recommendations.

Twelve of the actual 53 members of the CND that could vote in December are also EU member states.

The Canadian, Jamaican, United Kingdom and Swiss statements were aligned with the EU position regarding the support of holding the vote in December.

U.S. position

Virginia Patton Prugh, speaking on behalf of the United States, supports adopting Recommendation 5.1, which would remove cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 treaty.

“It is our responsibility … to use the scheduling process so that drugs that are indispensable for the relief of pain and suffering are made available globally but are subject also to effective measures to prevent their abuse and diversion,” Prugh said.

According to the United States, the division among countries which want a more permissive drug control framework and those who favor a more restrictive one is “artificial” and “unhelpful.”

If Recommendation 5.1 is adopted, “there would be no impact on the measures of control applicable to cannabis,” the U.S. representative said.

“When the WHO finds that a drug in Schedule IV has substantial therapeutic advantages not possessed by drugs not in Schedule IV, the substance should be removed from Schedule IV, and this is the case before us of cannabis and cannabis resin.”

The U.S. spokeswoman used GW Pharmaceuticals’ Epidiolex as an example of “therapeutic usefulness … (that) warrants the removal of cannabis from schedule IV.”

“We have a duty to ensure that the international scheduling of cannabis … accurately reflects the state of science,” Prugh added.

“The critical need to develop therapies for patients … will only happen with quality research,” she said, and that research would be “stimulated” by the adoption of Recommendation 5.1.

Not adopting Recommendation 5.1, “despite scientific evidence, will signal that the CND is tone deaf and out of touch.”

About the other recommendations, the U.S. representative said “we firmly believe that Recommendations 5.2, 5.3, 5.5 and 5.6 are outside the scope of the scheduling process”

“If adopted, at best they would introduce legal ambiguities and contradictions that would undermine effective drug control, and at worst, they could result in the exclusion of control of all THC derived from cannabis cultivated for industrial purposes.”

Strongly against

Russia provided a joint statement on behalf of about two dozen countries, most from Asia and Africa, of which 15 are current CND members that could vote in December.

They reaffirmed that the international drug-control conventions, drafted more than 50 years ago, “still remain relevant today” and expressed belief that the treaties “have been effective in addressing the illicit production of and trafficking of cannabis.”

These countries proposed postponing the vote.

The countries did not indicate they would support any change, saying that “the current scheduling of cannabis and its related substances provides sufficient flexibility … for medical and scientific purposes,” and that there is limited evidence to justify changes.

Egypt, which was represented in the Russia statement, also gave a separate statement highlighting four concerns:

  1. Insufficient scientific evidence to justify a change.
  2. Risk of “unprecedented division” that could occur if voting were to be done based on “political alignments” on the “absence of evidence.”
  3. Legal implications for member states, particularly when the recommendations contradict national legislation.
  4. Lack of capacities of some member states to implement the recommendations.

Chile gave its own independent statement, which did not show any sign it would support the recommendations. The country particularly opposes Recommendation 5.1 of deleting cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 convention.

Brazil, Cuba and Paraguay were other Latin American or Caribbean countries which, in their statements, largely opposed the recommendations, particularly 5.1. They argued that cannabis poses security as well as health problems.

Paraguay also mentioned possible negative consequences of adopting the recommendations for reasons associated with food security and the environment. This concern was later shared by other countries, such as Russia.

Among the Asian countries that offered statements, most were fully against the recommendations. Those nations included China, Iraq, Iran, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore.

A repeated theme among opposing nations was the concern that adopting the recommendations would lead to the public perception that cannabis is no longer harmful.

Alfredo Pascual can be reached at [email protected]

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