On December 2, 2020, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs voted with 27 States in favor, 25 against, and one abstaining, to remove cannabis from its list of Schedule IV Narcotic drugs. Cannabis has been listed as a Schedule IV drug for sixty years under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961.
Schedule IV Narcotics
The UN CND recommends the strictest controls for Schedule I and Schedule IV narcotics. Schedule I includes drugs that are addictive and pose a high risk of abuse, while Schedule IV includes “certain drugs listed in Schedule I that are highly addictive and highly liable to abuse and rarely used in medical practice.” Cannabis and heroin were listed together as Schedule IV narcotics prior to the vote on December 2, 2020.
The recommended control measures and prohibition of cannabis were never binding for States party to the Convention. However, the United Nations’ official stance against the use of cannabis for medical research has potentially influenced national laws and research into the drug. Therefore, the removal of cannabis from Schedule IV means that states may initiate or expand research into the effects and medical uses of cannabis in the future. Ecuador, which voted in favor of removing cannabis from Schedule IV, stated that, moving forward, cannabis production, sale and use, should have “a regulatory framework that guarantees good practices, quality, innovation and research development.”
Michael Krawitz, executive director for the US advocacy group Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, suggested that the move could open opportunities for cannabis use as a pain reliever and ultimately reduce the use of opiates for the same purposes.
The UN’s stance on cannabis has also been influential in shaping nations’ laws on the criminality of cannabis possession and use. Now that the UN no longer classifies cannabis as a Schedule IV narcotic, many states may move forward with the decriminalization of marijuana, which would significantly decrease prosecutions for individuals’ possession or use of marijuana.
States across the globe have already begun decriminalizing the possession of cannabis derivatives, a trend that will likely continue following the CND’s decision. Mexico is the latest state to loosen its legal controls on cannabis. The Mexican Senate approved a landmark bill in November 2020 that decriminalizes the possession of up to 28 grams of marijuana. Meanwhile, Canada legalized the use of marijuana for recreational purposes in October 2018. There are many states around the world, a number of whom voted on this proposal in the CND, where cannabis use is already decriminalized if not fully legalized.
Still, the CND’s decision may not push all countries to loosen its controls on the drug. The Netherlands, which decriminalized marijuana in 1976, may soon see tighter controls in its capital Amsterdam. The city is currently considering a law that would limit recreational use to its own citizens, in response to the impact of drug tourism on organized crime in the country.
The Process of Removal
The process of removing cannabis from the list of Schedule 4 drugs began in January 2019, when the World Health Organization released six recommendations concerning the classification of cannabis in international drug control treaties. The WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence was responsible for the investigation behind these proposals.
The UN CND first viewed the proposals in May 2019. Since then, member States have been reviewing their positions in preparation for the decision made last month. The UN CND rejected five of the six recommendations.
The WHO’s failed proposals included inter alia recommendations to move the psychoactive components of cannabis, including dronabinol and its stereoisomers (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) and tetrahydrocannabinol (six isomers of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), to Schedule I of the 1961 Convention, which already includes cannabis and cannabis resin; to delete extracts and tinctures of cannabis from Schedule I of the 1961 Convention; and to add a footnote to Schedule I of the 1961 Convention to read “Preparations containing predominantly cannabidiol and not more than 0.2 per cent of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol are not under international control”; and to add certain preparations of dronabinol to Schedule III of the 1961 Convention.
The WHO recommended that cannabis remain listed as a Schedule I narcotic. The CND did not remove this classification in its recent vote, nor did it vote to reconfirm the classification, which would be unnecessary for it to remain classified thus. Proponents of looser regulations may continue to push for cannabis’ removal from this schedule in the future.
However, the recent decision of the CND may encourage many states to create or expand research programs into the effects and uses of cannabis in the future. Advocates for legalization of the drug also hail this decision as a step in the right direction.