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World Health Organization Cannabis: Rules in Favor of Cannabidiol (CBD) – Should Not Be a Scheduled Substance

Johnny Welch | December 28, 2017| World Health Organization Cannabis | In an unexpected and widely celebrated turn of events, the United Nations’ World Health Organization (WHO) recently came out in support of cannabidiol (CBD), an active, non-psychoactive compound in the cannabis plant.


After researchers spent months looking into the cannabinoid, the WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) announced that the use of CBD has health benefits for both humans and animals, and, furthermore, does not exhibit indications of potential abuse, or risk of addiction. The WHO’s initial review of the existing scientific research also found that CBD is “well tolerated” and has a “good safety profile.”


Perhaps even more surprisingly, the international public health agency also acknowledged that, in addition to advanced evidence for the treatment of epilepsy, preliminary evidence suggests that CBD may also be useful in treating an array of health conditions and dangerous diseases, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Inflammatory bowel diseases, Crohn’s, Multiple sclerosis, “a large range of cancer types,” anxiety, depression, and other serious maladies (see the World Health Organization Cannabis (cannabidiol – CBD) report, p.18 for details).


Leading scientific research into the effects of cannabidiol has prompted the international agency to question current international laws against marijuana, specifically the scheduling of CBD. The WHO’s official recommendation (full PDF report here), reported in international media on December 14, is that cannabidiol (CBD) “not be internationally scheduled as a controlled substance.” This means, according to the WHO, that CBD should not be “subject to strict international controls, including for production and supply.”


In emails to Newsweek, WHO representatives further clarified that the health agency’s report “does not say that WHO recommends the use of cannabidiol,” but that “cannabidiol should not be scheduled for international control on the basis of current evidence.”


In essence, the WHO said, CBD “should not be prohibited, at the international level, to produce and supply it for specific purposes, such as medical treatment and research.”


If CBD is not scheduled, moreover, then the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime cannot impose sanctions on nations for legalizing the substance.


Representatives from the WHO were, however, careful to distinguish CBD from other cannabis extracts and tinctures which are still included in the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Unlike tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), for example, another principal cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant, CBD does not produce the psychoactive effect (the feeling of being “high”) so often associated with cannabis. WHO representatives indicated that a more complete review will be conducted next year, at which point additional cannabinoids will be discussed.


The UN Versus the DEA


Not surprisingly, there was no response to the WHO’s announcement from the nation’s infamous anti-cannabis crusaders. Meanwhile, the WHO’s recommendation flies in the face of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which continues to list cannabis alongside heroin, ecstasy, and LSD, as a Schedule I substance, with “no currently accepted medical use.”


Even as the rest of the world begins to recognize the health benefits of the cannabis plant, including specific cannabinoids such as CBD, the DEA continues to sow confusion and fear. In fact, as recently as July 2017, the DEA released public statements against CBD—the non-psychoactive ingredient in cannabis—insisting that CBD is still illegal and is still technically, as part of the cannabis plant, listed as a Schedule I substance.


Leaders within the DEA are apparently incapable of recognizing a distinction between different cannabis derivatives such as CBD and THC, at least as it pertains to the psychoactive versus non-psychoactive effects of different cannabinoids (i.e. THC versus CBD, CBN, CBG, etc.). The DEA has shown, however, a willingness to step beyond, as Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Betty Fletcher put it, “the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA)” by establishing a new code (7350) for “marijuana extracts,” essentially attempting to make all cannabinoids illegal. Fortunately, this has not worked out well for the DEA in the past.


Nevertheless, the UN’s international health agency is moving forward, and, the WHO reports, “a fuller review of extracts or preparations containing almost exclusively CBD will take place in June 2018, when the WHO expert committee will undertake a comprehensive review of cannabis and cannabis related substances.”


A Prelude to a Change in International Law?


While these new developments highlight the possibility that the UN will play a role in relaxing anti-cannabis laws around the world, there are currently three UN drug control treaties that stand to hinder cannabis legalization efforts for participating UN member nations:


  1. The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs,
  2. The 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and
  3. The 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.

In order to avoid a breach of international law, those nations that hope to legalize cannabis must first withdraw from these drug control treaties. (Some legal scholars, in fact, as well as the UN anti-narcotics chief, have argued that those individual states that have legalized cannabis—Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, etc.—are themselves in violation of these UN conventions. Others, however, disagree.)


To be sure, the United States has stood firmly in support of a number of important international treaties, including, for example, treaties against war crimes, human rights treaties, and treaties against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. To legalize cannabis in the U.S., but neglect to go through the formal withdrawal process with the United Nations would be to openly violate these important drug control treaties, and directly undermine all of the other important international treaties of which the U.S. is a part. This sort of pick and choose approach might also come at a cost to our credibility and reputation (at least with some nations). It would also set a bad precedent and a bad example for other nations.


The challenge, however, is that beginning the process of withdrawing or renegotiating the treaties would take time, possibly years, and might in fact be delayed long enough so that the process outlasts whatever current pro-cannabis administration is in office. The other challenge is that full withdrawal would severely undercut U.S. influence over these drug control treaties and related issues.


Others have argued that cannabis legalization does not in and of itself violate these three drug control treaties. According to Canada’s Bill Blair, parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice and the government’s key man on marijuana, “We’re looking at replacing the criminal sanctions with a very strict regulatory regime. We intend to control the production, distribution and the consumption of marijuana, to keep it away from kids and from organized crime—which, in my opinion, will not put us in violation of the conventions.” Blair believes that this regulatory regime will in effect, he said, “enable us to fulfill our obligations to our international partners.”


Given the significant bi-partisan support for the Cole memo—the current set of cannabis enforcement guidelines used by the U.S. to help regulate the production, distribution, and sale of cannabis as individual states adopt new and different approaches to cannabis laws—the hope is that these guidelines can likewise help to make the case that the U.S. is operating in accordance with these drug control treaties. Perhaps the Cole memo may also serve as the beginning of a framework for changing international cannabis laws.


World Health Organization Cannabis

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