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As seen in: Issue 27

The United Nations Debates Cannabis

Inside the walls that represent all flags, during the 62nd Commission of Narcotic Drugs (CND) at the UN, there was a buzz going around about cannabis. It was a predictable tee-off between cannabis the killer (and arrest those who use it) versus cannabis the medicine (and regulate its use). From the criminalized Filipino—Russian side to the legalized Uruguayan—Canadian side of the spectrum, it defined nations united by divided views on cannabis.

This year was meant to be a pivotal point evaluating a decade of progress since the ‘2009 Political Declaration and Plan of Action’. Although a lot has changed over the past ten years, the institutional structure cannot seem to keep up with modern times.

The drug policy conversation at the UN is a bit like listening to a broken record picked up from a baby boomers’ closet; policies stuck in that era of prohibition. Without fail, delegations repeat their allegiance to the conventions, as they are ‘the cornerstones of the international drug control regime’: the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 1971 Single Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the 1988 Single Convention Against Illicit Traffic of Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.

When it comes to cannabis, countries such as Uruguay, Canada, and several states in the U.S. are often singled out, as their regulatory frameworks for adult-use cannabis technically violates the treaties, thus ‘undermining the integrity of the international system.’ Pointing fingers about treaty violations release the bull into the ring. Other countries, such as Russia and the Philippines, are then accused of human rights violations.

This playground chat often gets lost in a mix of national agendas and foreign affairs. Drug policies become the veil for deeply entrenched political issues and domestic matters. The banter distracts from advancing dialogues and often becomes a blast from the past, which was the case when some ambassadors referred to ‘cannabis as the devil’s poison.’

It’s mind-boggling that some conversations have been static in time and that critical drug control treaties remain stagnant as well.

However, this year, the cannabis conversation began to shift, and the world was watching the 62nd CND with particular attention. The World Health Organization (WHO) conducted its first-ever critical review on cannabis and its derivatives, resin, and extracts, CBD, THC, and isomers of THC, and provided recommendations to schedule the plant at the international level.

In December 2018, the WHO announced recommendations for other substances under critical review (e.g., Tramadol, Pregabalin), yet recommendations for cannabis were only announced at the end of January 2019. It was an unprecedented action.

It is necessary to note that cannabis for medical and scientific purposes has always been, and continues to be, permitted under the international drug control system. Countries have the right to implement regulatory frameworks for cannabis, whether it be for medical or research/scientific purposes, but many have argued that the current scheduling has restricted access to research and cannabis for medicine.

Changing the schedule of cannabis reflects the medicinal value of it. Several changes to the conventions were recommended including the following points:

  • CBD should not be subject to international scheduling
  • Remove THC (and isomers of THC) from the 1971 Convention and list it in 1961 under Schedule I
  • List cannabis and resin in Schedule I of the 1961 Convention and remove it from Schedule IV
  • Remove extracts and tinctures from Schedule I of the 1961 Convention

Expectations were high. Results were underwhelming.

High-level debates occurred primarily behind closed doors, whereas politicized statements were shared in the main plenary.

The primary cannabis consensus this year, despite some strong opposition from delegations with regulated cannabis markets, was to postpone the vote on scheduling cannabis and its derivatives until March 2020 at the 63rd CND. It is expected that a series of informal conversations, formal meetings, and other sessions will be conducted over the next year. Activists have been waiting for this historic moment and, unfortunately, they’re still waiting for formal adoption of the outcome.

If cannabis were treated like any other substance and if all international agencies upheld their mandates, then the situation may be very different. At an informal session during the CND, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) addressed civil society and made a statement regarding what constituents medical cannabis, which excluded smoking cannabis for example. With plans to also provide cultivation guidelines for medical marijuana, the INCB seems to take on more than it has been mandated to do.

The INCB’s treaty-mandated role was a key point of contention at the CND this year. A resolution, sponsored by Russia, remained in informal sessions until the end of the week. Prepared to bring the resolution to the plenary for consideration to adopt, no matter the cost, was rather unprecedented. It appears that this specific resolution indirectly hoped to frame the cannabis conversation with a potential roadblock.

What happened at the UN this year reveals that cannabis is controversial, which is not news to most of us. The mere fact that the recommendations are controversial also shows that cannabis policies have the potential to disrupt the system as we know it.

With the opportunity to create new regulatory frameworks welcomes the opportunity to develop new structures, rather than recreating structures that already exist. Think small farmers, smaller countries with equal, fair opportunities. Topics such as fair trade and sustainability are being discussed before the international framework is in place.  Even if the regulatory shift is at a standstill, at least for the next few months, it gives the global community time to seriously consider how to come together through interstate agreements and national frameworks.

We’ve been living in prohibition our entire life. The past few years of cannabis reform prove that anything is possible, even in the most unconventional of ways. While we may have to wait one full year for a legitimate vote, there is still a lot that could happen between now and then.

Right now, there’s diplomatic consensus and localized agreements. We’re looking at a future where that diplomatic consensus could reflect the localized agreements of relaxed cannabis laws. Enjoy the grey space for just a wee bit longer.

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Jessica is a Ph.D. student at the University of Oxford researching the legal cannabis industry. She is Managing Director of international cannabis consultancy, The Global C, and co-founder of entOURage Network, an organization to empower and connect women in the European cannabis industry. Her work brings her to the UN and WHO, and speaks globally about her research and work, as well as the charity that she founded when she was 13 years old, Giveable Giggles.