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The World Health Organization (WHO) has taken a historic step toward the international reform of regulations regarding cannabis with a letter to the United Nations advising that it broaden access to medical cannabis.

On Feb. 1, 2019,  WHO published a letter in which it recommended that cannabis and cannabis resin no longer be considered controlled substances in international treaties. Specifically, WHO asked that cannabis and cannabis resin be removed from the highest restriction, Schedule IV of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The Schedule IV designation includes substances that are considered to have no therapeutic value. In the U.S., the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies cannabis under Schedule I, a designation given to substances thought to have a high potential for abuse and no medical value. Cannabis is placed among LSD and heroin in that category.

The recommendation also includes removing current controls from dronabinol, the active ingredient in Marinol capsules, and from cannabidiol (CBD) preparations that contain 0.2 percent or less of THC.

“We are extremely pleased that the World Health Organization has finally recognized the therapeutic potential of cannabis and its derivatives as a safe and effective medicine. With an international rescheduling or descheduling of cannabis, the U.S. government can no longer use the excuse that cannabis has no medical value,” Steph Sherer, president and founder of the patients' group Americans for Safe Access, said in a statement. “It is now incumbent that our government change legislation at the federal level to eliminate barriers to research and access for patients throughout the country,” he said. “It is time our government stepped up to provide relief for patients that have been suffering for years throughout the U.S.”

At a 2016 conference, science and medicine experts reviewed a 91-page report that detailed the medical usefulness of cannabis and suggested a path toward legalization. The ASA subsequently submitted it to the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND).  In November 2016, WHO agreed to a review of cannabis, a process that ended when the recommendations were published on Feb. 1, 2019.

“These recommendations were inevitable and their adoptions by the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) would enhance public health globally,” said Dr. Pavel Pachta, International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute's International Regulatory Affairs Director and former Deputy Secretary of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB).

“We do not expect that the CND would vote against these recommendations as they come from scientific experts and are based on rigorous scientific review,” Pachta said in a statement from ASA.

The World Health Organization (WHO), with its board room shown Dec. 6, 2013, in its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, is recommending to the United Nations (UN) to make it easier to access medical cannabis. (Photo by Thoridild Tylleskar via Wikimedia Commons; used with a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Other researchers weighed in.

“It is gratifying that the World Health Organization has recognized the scientific fact that cannabis and its derivatives have demonstrable therapeutic properties and can be the base for safe and effective medicines. It is now incumbent upon governments of the USA and other nations to eliminate the barriers to research on cannabis and allow its free commerce across state lines and international frontiers,” said Dr. Ethan Russo, neurologist and director of research and development of the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute (ICCI) in a statement from the institute.  

Dr. Ethan Russo: It is gratifying that the World Health Organization has recognized the scientific fact that cannabis and its derivatives have demonstrable therapeutic properties and can be the base for safe and effective medicines. Click To Tweet

The move also means that global medical policy shifts to the CND, for which members of the U.N.'s key drug policy-making body will vote on whether to adopt the advice. The commission addresses drug rehabilitation, illicit trafficking and, using WHO recommendations, how to place narcotics and psychotropic substances under international control.

For more than 50 years, member nations of the U.N. have met to determine coordinated, international intervention, control, and definition of narcotic drugs and have assembled those recommendations into the International Drug Control Interventions.


Featured image: The World Health Organization (WHO), based in Geneva, Switzerland, has recommended that cannabis and cannabis resin be removed from the most restrictive controlled substances designation from the international Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The recommendations were published Feb. 1, 2019, from a January 2018 letter to the United Nations (UN). (Photo by the United States Mission Geneva via Wikimedia Commons; used with a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

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