How Alleged WHO Recommendations Would Affect International Cannabis Markets

By Beau Whitney, Vice President, and Senior Economist, New Frontier Data

An anticipated recommendation by the World Health Organization (WHO) calling for the international rescheduling of “marijuana” and derivative products is poised to be a watershed moment with implications to be observed throughout global markets.

If an unconfirmed leak of a WHO document reported February 1 by a cannabis legalization activist and journalist* is accurate, United Nations (UN) global health experts next month will advocate for whole-plant marijuana and cannabis resin to be rescheduled from a Schedule IV classification (the most restrictive as defined within a 1961 international drug convention), and for delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and related isomers to be completely removed from a separate 1971 international drug treaty.

The proposed rescheduling would de-emphasize marijuana and resins to Schedule I (the lowest level of international restrictions), and would remove altogether CBD having THC levels below 0.2%. Cannabis tinctures and extracts would also be designated as Schedule I. (Note: That designation contrasts with classification under the U.S. Controlled Substances Act of 1970 [CSA], in which Schedule I is the most restrictive level).

Currently, New Frontier Data estimates that there are 272 million cannabis consumers globally, reflecting the strong demand and widespread use of cannabis worldwide.

The rescheduling of cannabis products would accelerate the pace of global cannabis reform. Currently, more than 60 countries allow for some form of legalized medical, adult-use, or industrial cannabis production or research activities. Countries which have previously resisted reform efforts for fear of international repercussions would be encouraged toward developing domestic cannabis industries and expanding international trade between newly opened markets.

The global hemp industry would also expand in both scope and influence. Based on data in The Global State of Hemp 2019 Industry Outlook (released tomorrow), the de-scheduling of hemp-derived CBD would lend economic accelerant to a market already afire: As detailed in the report, global CBD sales in 2018 are estimated beyond $800 million, with the overall global hemp market forecast to expand at a 17.5% rate through 2020. By removing industrial hemp-based CBD products from any scheduling, look for the pace of global growth to quicken, and for more countries to utilize hemp to provide economic development.

The proposed changes by the WHO would also significantly affect the U.S. medical, adult-use, and industrial markets. By having the world’s leading health organization endorse health-related benefits to cannabis, U.S. regulators, legislators, and other policymakers would be hard-pressed to justify the current CSA scheduling, which asserts there being no medicinal value in cannabis and continues a policy that prioritizes the most punitive penalties for cannabis violations. Pressure for legislative and regulatory reform is already underway given Canada’s nationwide program and Mexico’s judicial repeal of prohibition.

That noted, much remains to be decided: Member states of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) originally expected to receive the recommendations from WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) in December 2018, before they were delayed to CND’s annual meeting next month. Now, however, there is conjecture that the ECDD recommendations may not be presented until sometime in 2020 to offer additional time for their consideration by member states.

Despite the presence of unknowns, and however they flurry across the landscape, New Frontier Data will continue (here, and through our latest reports) to share the most solidly comprehensive research and insights available to the legal cannabis industry. More information about the global dynamics shaping cannabis in 2019 can be found in State of the Cannabis Union 2019, available for free through the New Frontier Data website.


(*Full disclosure: The exclusive report about the leaked WHO document first appeared in Marijuana Moment, of which New Frontier Data was once a sponsor.)