A United Nations commission has voted to reclassify cannabis as a less dangerous drug, acknowledging the plant’s medical value and paving the way for further therapeutic use of the drug internationally.
The 27-25 vote by the Vienna-based UN Commission for Narcotic Drugs was based on 2019 recommendations by the World Health Organization (WHO), which provides technical expertise on drugs to the UN. The decision removes cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs, where it was listed alongside drugs such as heroin as having little to no medical or therapeutic value.
However, the vote does not remove cannabis or related products from the list of drugs requiring strict international controls.
The United States, Canada, Mexico, and the United Kingdom were among the countries that voted to approve the measure; countries including Russia, China, Brazil, and Japan voted against it. Morocco was the only nation from the Middle East and North African region to support the reclassification.
The 1961 convention was established to bolster international cooperation for ending drug abuse through two methods of intervention. The first restricts drug use, possession, sale, and distribution to the purposes of science or medicine, while the second sees collaboration to intercept and demoralize drug traffickers.
The UN system for classifying controlled drugs lists 250 substances in four “schedules,” or categories, according to their health risks, dangers, addictiveness, and medical value. Schedule IV, which is what cannabis has been listed as for decades, is reserved for the most dangerous substances that are of “extremely limited medical or therapeutic value.”
Now, though, with this vote reclassifying cannabis as less dangerous, the UN commission “has opened the door to recognizing the medicinal and therapeutic potential of the commonly-used but still largely illegal recreational drug” internationally, the UN said in a news item on the vote.
A press release from an international group of drug policy organizations welcomed the changes, which they say will give the international community more incentive to invest in cannabis-based medicines.
“This is welcome news for the millions of people who use cannabis for therapeutic purposes and reflects the reality of the growing market for cannabis-based medicinal products,” the statement said.
However, the advocates also said the changes do not go far enough because cannabis will remain listed under Schedule I along with more serious drugs like heroin and cocaine. This is despite the WHO finding that cannabis was not as harmful as other drugs listed in the same schedule.
Cannabis and its derivatives are still subject to strict international controls, and the commission’s vote against the other four cannabis-related measures, including one to remove cannabis extracts and tinctures from the list of substances most prone to abuse, shows that broader international legalization is still a long way off.
But the trend is moving in that direction, and this latest vote certainly helps.
The movement toward legalization of medical marijuana is catching on
Although proponents have much work to do to improve international access to medical marijuana, recent developments suggest the movement is gaining steam.
In January, Uganda’s health ministry issued guidelines for the cultivation of marijuana for medical purposes, bringing the country in line with other African nations including Zambia, Lesotho, and Zimbabwe that are easing restrictions on growing medical marijuana.
Earlier this year, Thailand, which has harsh drug penalties, became the first Southeast Asian country to legalize the use of medical marijuana for patients. And in late November, the Thai government announced plans to allow the use of cannabis — minus its most addictive elements, like the flowers — in cosmetics and cooking.
On November 26, the Mexican Senate overwhelmingly voted to legalize marijuana, and Canada legalized marijuana back in 2018. The US has not federally legalized marijuana, but four more states voted to legalize it in the 2020 election, bringing the total to 15.
This week, the US House of Representatives is set to take up the Marijuana Opportunities, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act, which will be the first time federal decriminalization of marijuana has been considered by either chamber of Congress. If it passes, the bill, sponsored by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, will also expunge marijuana convictions, which have long disproportionately plagued communities of color.