international law WHO UN cannabisLast Friday, December 7, the World Health Organization (“WHO”) Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (“ECDD”), was scheduled to make a recommendation about the international legal status of cannabis. The WHO is a “specialized agency” of the United Nations, and the ECCD is a WHO committee consisting of experts in the field of drugs and medicines, that assesses the health risks and benefits of the use of psychoactive substances. Alas, the ECDD announced it would temporarily withhold the results of the assessment until January, declaring it needed additional time “for clearance reasons.”

Earlier this year, the ECDD released a preliminary report (“Pre-Review”) on the effects of the plant, which concluded that cannabis is a “relatively safe drug.” The Pre-Review also revealed that cannabinoids (“CBD”) offer numerous therapeutic benefits, including reduction of pain, promotion of sleep, and improvement of motor function for individuals affected by Parkinson’s disease. As a result, the ECDD made the recommendation to the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (“CND”), that pure CBD not be scheduled under any international drug treaty.

The Pre-Review results gave us and other reform advocates great hope that a more in-depth review would take place before the ECDD makes a final recommendation to U.N. Secretary António Guterres. Comprehensive scientific data on the effects and benefits of cannabis are hard to find. Indeed, the current status of cannabis as a strictly prohibited substance has forced researchers who wish to study the plant to overcome additional hurdles that do not exist for the study of other drugs. To this end, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams declared last week that the federal government should evaluate how it classifies the drug because the restrictive scheduling hinders research.

Just as we need to look at criminal justice laws, rules and regulations, we need to look at health laws, rules and regulations, and that includes the scheduling system.”

This statement by one of the key officials of the Trump administration highlights a shift in the U.S. federal government’s strict position on the prohibition of cannabis. As we previously discussed, the federal government has repeatedly cited to obligations under international treaties to perpetuate the current ban on cannabis and its derivatives. Back in May, the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) concluded that CBD should be descheduled but felt forced to recommend rescheduling the plant to Schedule V of the Controlled Substance Act to comply with international treaties to which the U.S is a party. Nonetheless, the FDA specified that if treaty obligations were to no longer require control of CBD that its recommendation would need to be promptly revisited.

Accordingly, the potential recommendation by the ECDD to remove cannabis from international control would create wide-ranging implications for the global effort to legalize the plant, including in the U.S. But for now, we must wait patiently for the ECDD’s recommendation to the CND, which is scheduled to be discussed and to go up for a vote in March 2019. The delay is frustrating, although we are encouraged to see that the U.N. continues to take a hard look at cannabis. Sit tight.