Historic Victory for Cannabis at the United Nations

Written by Orsi Fehér ’16 and Beatrix Vas ’19

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Drug policy history was made yesterday as the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) removed cannabis from Schedule IV in the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961

After two years of active procrastination, the CND finally made a decision that acknowledges the medicinal qualities of the cannabis plant and its components. Cannabis has originally been scheduled under both Schedules I and IV– the strictest category reserved for the most dangerous substances without medical applications. The process in 1961 was made entirely without due scientific considerations and motivated by racism and colonial prejudice.

The decision made on Wednesday marks the first time in 60 years that a substance was removed from the schedule it was originally placed in. We really hope this to be taken as a sign that the Commission is ready to reevaluate the content and scope of the international drug control treaty regime to be more reflective of the progress we’ve made in the science of substances.

However, there is still a long way to go to end prohibition. Cannabis remains a controlled substance in Schedule I of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, maintaining it under the same strict controls as heroin and cocaine, and even after the Commission has spent the last two years studying and deliberating on cannabis science and policy, the vote was very close. With 27 votes for, 25 against, and 1 abstention, Member States are still extremely divided– some have already implemented medicinal cannabis programmes, some have even legalized nonmedical use, while others still impose draconian legal repercussions for possession of small amounts.

This decision will not have binding legal consequences for the signatory countries to the treaties (i.e. they will not be forced to review their national policies) but the change is not insignificant: it will likely become much easier for millions of patients to access medications containing cannabis and its derivatives. In that, this is a major win for medical cannabis advocacy and for all of us advocating for evidence-based drug policy reform.

We should be mindful though that as the treaties are not automatically transferred to national law, it will be up to the states to remove the obstacles in the implementation of medical cannabis programmes and ensure wider access to the plant for scientific and research purposes. Our advocacy has to continue and build on the successes of global drug control reform, such as the human-centered language of the UNGASS outcome document that enables civil society to advocate for themselves easier and this recent cannabis decision. We have to push our governments, the Members of the Commission, along with the entire global community, to continue fulfilling their duty and reevaluate outdated and unscientific policies if they do intend to fulfill the promise of the international treaty regime to protect the health and wellbeing of humanity. Prohibition has failed to do that.

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