WHO recommends worldwide cannabis declassification

Marijuana-derived and cannabis resin products should be delisted from current restrictive categories, says UN agency

Calls for a reassessment of global cannabis laws have been backed the World Health Organization.

The specialised United Nations agency has, in its latest report on drugs, suggested that a raft of recent scientific evidence supporting the medical benefits of cannabis means it “should be rescheduled”.

According to papers published by the British Medical Journal, the WHO is recommending that some marijuana-derived and cannabis resin products should be delisted from the Schedule IV category of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961.

The Schedule IV treaty was designed to curb illicit production and supply of unresearched compounds that were considered to be potentially harmful.

This change of heart from the WHO represents a marked U-turn in policy which has remained strictly against using cannabis in medicine for more than 60 years.

The recommendation comes from the agency’s specialist Committee on Drug Dependence.

Drugs listed under Schedule IV (and also Schedule I, by default) are categorised as holding ‘dangerous properties’ and, therefore, cannot be considered to have therapeutic benefits. This restricts their use in any capacity – including research.

By removing cannabis from Schedule IV, it opens the floodgates to researchers and scientists keen to further explore the potential health benefits of cannabis-derived products.

“Cannabis and cannabis resin are included in Schedule I and Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs,” the report states.

“Substances that are included in both these Schedules are particularly liable to abuse and to produce ill-effects and have little or no therapeutic use.

“Other substances that are included in both Schedules I and IV are fentanyl analogues, heroin and other opioids that are considered especially dangerous.

“Use of all these substances is associated with a significant risk of death, whereas cannabis use is not associated with such risk. Based on the evidence presented to it, the Committee say that cannabis plant and cannabis resin are not liable to produce the same ill-effects as other substances in the Schedule IV category.”

Scientists currently face a quagmire of regulation that hinders their research into therapeutic uses for cannabidiol, purely because of its placing on Schedule IV.

Addressing this issue, the report continued: “In line with the above, cannabis and cannabis resin should be scheduled at a level of control that will prevent harm caused by cannabis use and at the same time will not act as a barrier to access and to research and development of cannabis-related preparation for medical use.”

However, while removal from Schedule IV will lift many restrictions, cannabis is to remain on Schedule I in accordance with the committee’s concerns about “high rates of public health problems arising from cannabis use”.

A further recommendation was made to remove tetrahydrocannabinol and dronabinol – both forms of psychoactive THC – and place them into Schedule I in order to simplify the classification process.

Importantly, a proposal was put forward by the committee that products made with cannabidiol containing no more than 0.2% THC should be taken off international drug control legislation. This could be a key factor in escalating the growing industry surrounding the production of cannabidiol.

“Cannabidiol is found in cannabis and cannabis resin but does not have psychoactive properties and has no potential for abuse and no potential to produce dependence,” the committee statement said.

“It does not have significant ill-effects. Cannabidiol has been shown to be effective in the management of certain treatment-resistant, childhood-onset epilepsy disorders.

“It was approved for this use in the United States in 2018 and is currently under consideration for approval by the EU.”

The WHO’s recommendations have been welcomed by advocacy groups like Paris-based ‘For Alternative Approaches to Addiction, Think & do tank’ (FAAAT), which has been campaigning for better understanding of cannabis as a medical product since the group was formed in 2016.

Its global policy adviser – Michael Krawitz – took to American magazine Newsweek to heap praise upon the World Health Organization’s stance, labelling the drug’s inclusion in the 1961 classification as an injustice.

“The WHO has gone a long way towards setting the record straight,” he said.

“It is time for us all to support the World Health Organization’s recommendations and ensure politics don’t trump science.

“Advocates thank the WHO Experts for their work, and WHO leadership for consistently defending the medical needs of our world.”

His views were echoed by FAAAT’s head of research – Kenzi Riboulet-Zemouli – who suggested that, while the WHO recommendations were to be embraced by the cannabis industry, the fight to open more doors for cannabis products would continue.

“This outcome is not the end of the road in the struggle for access and availability of cannabis-based medicines and I hope that nobody expected that, as the mandate of WHO has always been known to be limited, it gives an important positive signal to countries,” he said.

“If the recommendations of the WHO are adopted, it will substantially increase the normalisation and development of access, availability, and quality of cannabis-based medicines in our health systems.”