UN Update: Noteworthy Tidbits About The Progress in Global Cannabis Policy reform

Orsi Feher, Global Fellow for Europe

On September 23, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) convened in Vienna for the 5th intersessional meeting. Here is the low-down.

Orsi Feher, Global Fellow for Europe and member of the VNGOC.What is CND? And what is an Intersessional?

The CND is the main decision-making body of the United Nations in all drug control related matters. They make those decisions every March and convene meetings between the March sessions to prepare for the work there. This intersessional convened all member and observer states, as well as members of civil society, to follow up with the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding the recommendations issued earlier by their Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD).

What is the ECDD and what do they want?

The ECDD is made up of independent experts in the field of drugs and medicine who assess the health risks and benefits of the use of psychoactive substances. Based on lengthy and meticulous scientific processes, they come up with recommendations that are presented by the Director General of the WHO to the UN Secretary General and the United Nations Control Narcotic Board (INCB) who historically usually adopt the recommendations.

Their current recommendations would remove cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV of the 1961 Convention while still keeping it in Schedule I. Schedule IV is a subsection of Schedule I that is reserved for the most dangerous of substances that lack any medical value. Cannabis was placed there without any substantial assessment and the decision has not been scientifically reviewed since. The ECDD recommends the removal based on the principle of similarity – as they say, no other substance in this category is similar to cannabis in any significant way and the medical use of cannabis has been widely reported and endorsed since 1961.

You would think that this should be an easy decision to make for the people whose job is to safeguard the well-being and health of all humankind

Even though the recommendations would place all cannabis-related controlled substances to be scheduled under one category in the 1961 convention and thus ease the work of the current control system, member states have been debating the implications of such a decision for almost a year now. Granted, the WHO’s submission of the recommendations was initially delayed and so the Commission could legitimately postpone taking any action or even discuss the changes in depth last year, but the current consensus to “decide on actions to be taken on the recommendation during the 63rd session of the CND next March” still gives us virtually nothing for 2020. While some understand this statement as cannabis finally being on the agenda during the March conference, some are concerned that this wording is too vague to hold CND accountable to do anything… again.

The ECDD would also like to see Dronabidol (delta-9-thc; currently under Schedule II of the 1971 convention) and isomers of THC (currently under Schedule 1 of the 1971 convention) grouped under the same schedule as LSD or MDMA (I of the 1971 convention). This category includes drugs claimed to create a serious risk to public health, whose therapeutic value is not currently acknowledged. Some countries still worry about the “political message” they would be sending by moving these substances.

The ECDD also recommends to move Dronabinol preparations to the slightly more lax Schedule III of the 1961 convention (as opposed to it staying in Schedule II) and to remove extracts and tinctures (not containing THC) from scheduling as well as cannabidiol preparations (that is currently scheduled under I and IV in the 1961 convention). The ECDD brought the idea of a footnote to be added to the 1961 scheduling scheme as they found CBD to not be psychoactive and did not find sufficient evidence to support CBD to produce addictive or dire harmful effects while showing to be effective in responding to serious and difficult to treat conditions such as childhood epilepsy. 

A footnote seems to confuse the Commission to the point of perplexion and even though the WHO has repeatedly explained the unlikeliness of such occurrence, some CND members have dire concerns about people buying excess amounts of CBD legally to produce THC illegally but easily,as CBD products will be allowed to contain 0.2% THC as per the recommendations.

On the topic of CBD preparations, there was also a lot of back-and-forth regarding fibers and seeds and possible loopholes for cultivating psychoactive plants if they are licensed to serve industrial or horticultural purposes. Some delegations even took the initiative to go into CND records and dig up the protocol from the meetings where these substances were originally scheduled and discussed the possible motivations behind the confusing wording of the commentary attached to the convention – the detailed discussion is recorded in the CND Blog .

What is next?

Simply put, nobody is really sure. The staff of most delegations rotate periodically, so it is likely that the people who will participate in this discussion during the March conference are not the ones who influenced the direction the proceedings have taken so far. The WHO, along with the International Narcotics Control Board  and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime have briefed member states both orally and in written form several times; has answered numerous questions on technicalities, botany, health issues, data collection, and more. Every single person whose job is to make decisions on drug policy matters should be a cannabis expert at this point, yet there seems to be no end in sight to the cannabis Q&A at CND. All members agree that it is a very complex topic with wide-ranging implications – some fear that these changes could compromise the multilateral control system as it would allow some states to fully legalize a substance that some other members see as the source of all evil. Cannabis advocates at the UN are equally hopeful and impatient, and are looking at the United States as the agenda setter. The US has submitted more questions to this debate than any other member and have been the most active participant in the discussions without showing any signs of lenience or, to be frank, purpose. SSDP’s long time friend and supporter, Michael Krawitz (from Veterans for Medical Cannabis) thinks anything concrete will have to wait until after the elections, hence our low expectations as to what will result from the March conference in 2020. Michael is one of the hopeful people, though: he has been advocating for global cannabis reform since the early 90’s and has never heard so many sensible voices in the meeting room or member states voicing concerns about the original motivations behind scheduling cannabis; nor has he seen such a close relationship between civil society and policymakers that allows patients, academics, health-care professionals and advocates to have their voices heard on the big stage.

In any case, Róisín and Orsi will be your ears on the ground and keep you updated as the next intersessionals will convene in October 16-18 and December 12-14. In the meantime, if you live near or have access to New York or Vienna, Hannah and Orsi are making plans to maximise our impact and you can get global drug policy-savvy reading these blog posts: 

A Look Back at 2018 in Global Drug Policy

 Let’s Talk About International Cannabis Policy

Also, if you want to get involved with our impact at CND, consider joining the CND Mentorship Program provided by IDPC. You will be paired up with someone who has experience with CND and they can give you advice on what to expect and how to prepare for it. To join, email orsi.feher@ssdp.org.