Ask Our Experts: UN Vote to Reschedule Cannabis


Q: The United Nations reportedly made an historic move regarding cannabis yet it is still not legal.  What was the point and significance of their action?


By Josh Adams, Ph.D., Senior Industry Analyst, New Frontier Data

A: On Dec. 2, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs approved a recommendation from the World Health Organization (WHO) to remove cannabis and cannabis resin from its Schedule IV classification. That removed cannabis from the same classification category of drugs such as heroin and other opiates which are formally considered to be highly addictive, subject to abuse, broadly harmful, and of “little to no therapeutic purpose”. Considered historic since it marked a change in a 59-year-old policy, it represents international recognition of the medical utility of cannabis, and thus a measure of growing acceptance. Nevertheless, cannabis remains a Schedule I drug, defined as substances “with addictive properties, presenting a serious risk of abuse.”

While the decision is largely symbolic and unlikely have an immediate impact on how governments manage and regulate scheduled substances, it may help to ease restrictions on research into the medical and therapeutic uses of cannabis. More importantly, it signals a global shift in attitudes toward cannabis, however gradual. While the vote recognizes that cannabis has medical and therapeutic value, it cannot be separated from the momentum of the cannabis industry at large. Attitudes are changing, and even traditionally reserved organizations like the UN are evolving their perspectives.

Members of the commission voted 27-25 in favor of the measure, with one abstention. The votes of members provide some insight into the overall distribution of the cannabis industry across the globe, and speak to how various regions are open to the growth and development of cannabis relative to those who are more entrenched in their positions.

Rationales for supporting the measure tended to adhere closely to claims of medical efficacy and the therapeutic qualities of cannabis, while still maintaining that other uses were potentially problematic or dangerous. In a joint statement, supporting countries noted that the change “would allow more research, in line with our evidence-based drugs policy, on the medical use of cannabis and cannabis resin,” but further cautioned that the decision “should not be seen as a step towards a liberalization of the use of cannabis or minimizing the risks and dangers it represents for our society.”

The United States also voted to remove cannabis from Schedule IV of the Single Convention while retaining it in Schedule I. In a statement, the U.S. indicated that removing cannabis from Schedule IV was consistent with the science supporting the development of effective and safe cannabis-derived therapeutics, while retaining the Schedule I designation was necessary as “cannabis itself continues to pose significant risks to public health and should continue to be controlled under the international drug control conventions.”

Those who opposed the measure maintain that cannabis is dangerous, and that any move to relax international control would undermine both that messaging and longstanding drug control policy. The opposing members also suggested that the rescheduling would lead to increased drug-trafficking and decreased food security as cannabis production replaced other agricultural crops.

In an opposing joint statement, other UN member nations stated that “there is limited evidence that justifies any changes to the scheduling system for cannabis and its related substances, which remains relevant today in curbing the worsening global drug situation.” Furthermore, they expressed concern “that cannabis cultivation might expand further without proper control measures, which could lead to diversions to illicit market and result in weakening of the international drug control system.”

The divisions between those countries voting in support of the recommendation versus those remaining opposed go beyond mere contrasts between liberal and conservative societies. Rather, they are indicative of those open to the medical potential of cannabis, integrated into the global infrastructure of the cannabis supply chain, and creating their own domestic cannabis programs.

Support for the recommendation can be understood as members recognizing advances in science and novel applications for cannabis. Global actors au courant with the historical moment are positioning themselves for ongoing inclusion in the development of a global industry. If the recommendation and its attendant international support mark tepid and limited endorsement of the value of cannabis, it nevertheless represents a significant step forward for the acceptance and legitimacy of cannabis.