The long road to reclassification: UN Commission removes cannabis from list of most dangerous drugs

This is an onsite edited excerpt of the G|O Briefing newsletter

The UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime’s governing body narrowly voted yesterday to remove cannabis and cannabis resin from the highest level of classification in the 1961 Convention on Narcotic Drugs, following a WHO Expert Committee recommendation from 2019. The decision to move cannabis from the same level as heroin and other opioids into the same category as cocaine (due to the “high rates of public health problems arising from cannabis use”) is still a far cry from decriminalization.

The decision is “very welcome,” says Khalid Tinasti, director of the Geneva-based Secretariat of the Global Commission on Drug Policy—a high-level panel of world leaders including Ruth Dreifuss, Louise Arbour, Helen Clark, and others. Tinasti added, however, that while it is “a welcome move that shows that the change has started, it is also a disappointing one since much political capital has been wasted on a limited technical issue that will not change much the reality of cannabis in the world. Overall, the UN did not recognize the therapeutic value of cannabis; it only stopped questioning that it has any medical value.”

Changing a drug’s classification is not simple. Two major international treaties (from 1961 and 1971) essentially codify the internationally applicable control measures on the availability of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances. In them, specific substances are categorized into schedules which determine the level of control. WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) is then tasked with reviewing the existing literature on a substance and suggests which schedule in the Convention would be appropriate. That submission is then recommended by the WHO’s D-G, which sends it to the UN Secretary-General, who then submits it to the Commission on Narcotic Drugs for a vote. This is what happened with cannabis this week.

The G|O understands that one issue is that WHO has shown little interest in getting involved in drug policy, despite enormous pressure from many governments and civil society. Asked by The G|O why it was important that the international law relating to narcotic drugs is loosened, Tinasti responded:
“It is not only important, but it is also key for the relevance of international cooperation itself. International law states strongly that no drugs should be used for recreation, yet consumption, production (both agricultural and synthetic), and trafficking have never been higher since data was collected. Prices go down constantly, more potent substances are available, and prevention has little credibility because it overstates the potential harm

Reform and change are about our future societies, and to what extent those that are decision-makers in the global community are ready to accept that the reality on the field is what matters. It is a matter of providing the right tools for successful drug control, not putting in place a strict legislative and punitive arsenal as the sole response to drug use that is as diverse as humans on earth.”