The World Health Organization Steps Up on Cannabis

international law marijuana united nations

On February 1, it was reported that the World Health Organization (WHO) made some significant and long overdue recommendations with respect to cannabis. Those recommendations have not been formally released, but we expect that to happen soon. If adopted wholesale by the United Nations (UN), the recommendations will have a significant impact globally as to controls placed on cannabis and its constituent parts.

It is important to note that the WHO is not recommending the unfettered legalization of marijuana. Therefore, no one should expect the doors to swing wide on international cannabis trade overnight. Still, the WHO development is welcome news after nearly 60 years of unmerited and unexamined full prohibition of cannabis under international law.

The WHO recommendations are reported as follows:

  • Remove whole plant marijuana and cannabis resin from Schedule IV of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 (the “Single Convention”), but leave them on Schedule I of that treaty. (Under international law, Schedule I drugs are relatively safe, and Schedule IV drugs are the most heavily controlled.)
  • Place cannabis extracts and tinctures containing delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in Schedule III of the Single Convention.
  • Remove THC and its isomers completely from the 1972 Protocol to the Single Convention. (The 1972 Protocol is a follow-up treaty requiring states to actually enforce laws on their books against cannabis cultivation.)
  • Clarify that that cannabidiol and CBD-focused preparations containing no more than 0.2 percent THC are “not under international control” at all.

So what would all of this mean? First, cannabis containing more than trace amounts of THC would still be controlled. Whole plant marijuana would no longer be in the same class of drugs as heroin and fentanyl, but it would not be eligible for trade in the same way as coffee or even tobacco. Second, concentrated preparations of THC would be controlled more strictly than flower, but not at draconian levels. Third, penalties for distribution and possession of cannabis in any form would significantly decrease. And fourth, CBD would be treated like bonbons. In all, the WHO approach is measured and scientific, seeking to isolate various parts and preparations of the plant, and distinguish their effects.

When it comes to implications for U.S. law, the WHO’s assessment of CBD could have the most immediate impact. Readers of this blog may recall that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has taken the position that the U.S. would “not be able to keep obligations under the [Single Convention] if CBD were decontrolled under the CSA”. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ultimately fell in line with DEA’s interpretation, scheduled Epidiolex (an approved CBD drug), and recently issued a public statement warning that it is unlawful “to introduce food containing added CBD … into interstate commerce.”

If the WHO recommendation is adopted by the UN, though, the FDA may reverse course quickly. When FDA agreed to schedule Epidiolex, it advised:

If treaty obligations do not require control of CBD, or the international controls on CBD … are removed at some future time, the recommendation for Schedule V under the CSA would need to be revisited promptly.

Presumably, state health authorities would fall in line with the FDA’s ruling, and we would stop seeing things like last week’s raids in New York and Maine.

At some point this year, it is likely that the UN will vote on the WHO’s cannabis rescheduling recommendations. A really, really, really interesting question is where the United States will cast its lot on that momentous day. The U.S. has always been an international hardliner when it comes to cannabis, even as a vast majority of its states have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use. These days, though, things are changing fast – both domestically and worldwide.

For more on cannabis and international law, check out the following:

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Author: Vince Sliwoski