What Does the WHO Cannabis Recommendation Mean?
As the demand for and acceptance of cannabis and CBD continue to reverberate around the world, international organizations have been stepping in with research and guidance. Find out what the World Health Organization has to say about cannabis and CBD legalization with myCBD.org!
World Health Organization Chimes in on Cannabis, CBD Legalization
In January of 2019, the Director-General of the World Health Organization sent a letter to the Secretary-General of the United Nations recommending, among other things, that cannabis, CBD, and associated substances be rescheduled in the international drug control framework. The changes were recommended to help member countries facilitate the trade of cannabis-derived substances for medicinal and scientific uses.
How are drugs classified?
In order to understand the international perspective on cannabis and CBD legalization, it’s important to understand how the WHO classifies drugs. According to the UN Conventions of 1961 and 1971, substances are listed in four schedules that determine the controls put in place when it comes to activities such as international trade. According to the WHO’s website, schedule groups of substances are determined according to their therapeutic value and risk to public health. The WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD), an independent group of experts, has the ability to examine emerging evidence for all scheduled substances as well as the authority to recommend their positions within each schedule. Once their recommendations have been submitted, the United Nation’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs then votes on whether to accept the recommendation. Should the recommendation be accepted, it is up to member states to revisit their own national and international regulations concerning these substances.
Where do cannabis and CBD fit in?
In the 1961 Convention, substances are listed in either Schedule I or Schedule II according to their likelihood to be abused and ill effects on health. Substances may also be listed in Schedule III if available as medicines, and Schedule IV if a substance is considered particularly harmful with few therapeutic properties. Currently, ‘extracts and tinctures of cannabis’ -like CBD- are listed in Schedule I. However, ‘Cannabis and cannabis resin’ are listed in both Schedules I and IV. It is the inclusion of cannabis and cannabis resin in Schedule IV which makes cannabis-derived products very difficult to trade for medicinal purposes.
In the 1971 Convention, substances are listed in Schedules I-IV, on broadly inverse scales of ‘risk to public health’ and ‘therapeutic usefulness’. Currently, ‘tetrahydrocannabinol’ (THC) is classified in Schedule I (especially serious risk to public health and limited if any therapeutic usefulness), while ‘delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol’ is classified in Schedule II (substantial risk to public health and little to moderate therapeutic usefulness).
The trading restrictions are different for each Schedule but they are also slightly between the 1961 and 1971 Conventions. As a result, THC is subject to different trading restrictions from the plant material in which it naturally occurs.
What does the WHO-ECDD recommend?
- Cannabis and cannabis resin: remove from Schedule IV (keep in Schedule I) as it is not ‘particularly harmful’ (for example: use is not associated with a significant risk of death).
- ‘Extracts and tinctures’: remove from the Conventions as it is a complicated term to interpret, covering preparations that have psychoactive properties as well as those that do not. Effectively this will be replaced by a new entry in Schedule III of the 1961 Convention referring to pharmaceutical preparations of cannabis that do not pose a risk to public health.
- Delta-9-THC/dronabinol: delete from the 1971 Convention Schedule II and move to the 1961 Convention, Schedule I (with cannabis and cannabis resin). Previously considered a pharmaceutical preparation, it primarily refers to the main psychoactive component of cannabis. This will be a similar approach as for coca leaf/cocaine and opium/morphine.
- THC isomers: delete from the 1971 Convention Schedule I and move to the 1961 Convention Schedule I, based on current knowledge.
- Cannabidiol (CBD): add a footnote that products containing predominantly CBD and not more than 0.2% Delta-9-THC are not under international control. They are explicitly excluded as there is no relevant risk to public health.
These proposals were to be voted on by the Commission on Narcotic Drugs at its March 2019 session, but the vote was postponed as the recommendations were delayed.
What the WHO’s Recommendations Mean
While The World Health Organization (WHO) made great strides in its recommendations on how cannabis should be scheduled, but the global industry believes there’s more work to be done.
In the aftermath of the WHO’s recommendations, Martin Jelsma, drugs and democracy program director of Netherlands-based Transnational Institute, emphasized to reporters that there are “very positive elements in the WHO recommendations.”
These positive effects include:
- Recognition of “medical usefulness” with its removal from Schedule 4.
- Additional clarity about CBD not being under international control.
- Resolution of the inconsistencies created by having cannabis scheduled under the 1961 and THC scheduled under the 1971 Convention.
But the recommendations, however, didn’t go far enough, Jelsma said. “(It’s) quite disappointing that the WHO recommends to keep cannabis in Schedule I,” he added.
Pavel Pachta, director for international regulatory affairs at the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute in the Czech Republic, agreed while recognizing more may have been at play.
“Complete de-scheduling of cannabis is more a political matter, not a scientific issue for WHO experts,” Pachta said.
The WHO’s recommendations are nonbinding and must be voted on by the 53 member countries of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND). Due to the delay in the WHO’s release of cannabis and CBD recommendations, consideration is being pushed to 2020.
Validating Cannabis and CBD legalization
“It is auspicious that WHO has adopted a rational approach to cannabis and its compounds, incorporating advances that have long been accepted by the scientific community,” Diego Olivera, head of Uruguay’s National Drugs Council, told reporters.
“The recognition of medicinal uses and a more adequate assessment of the potential for abuse of THC are elements that support the processes of responsible legal regulation such as the Uruguayan case.”
Key industry players also welcomed the recommendations – especially the clarifications around CBD.
“The WHO’s decision is another positive step forward for the global movement to end prohibition and the many harms it causes,” said Brendan Kennedy, president and CEO of British Columbia-based Tilray. “By changing the international standard for the classification of CBD, the WHO is opening the door to governments to establish regimes that properly regulate CBD products,” he said.
If the recommendations are accepted, business prospects around the globe could expand exponentially.
“It could turn the CBD-based products into a regular commodity and will open the world market,” said Inbar Maymon-Pomeranchik, founder of Israel-based Biodiligence and executive director of Ananda Developments. “With far [fewer] limitations, products range will be unlimited. Once it will be possible, countries like Israel, with amazing technologies, will be able to export products in a very easy way,” he said.
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