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World Health Organization Recommends Rescheduling Cannabis

The World Health Organization (the “WHO”), by meeting of the Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (“ECDD”), has updated its position on medicinal cannabis and cannabinoids, calling for rescheduling under prominent international treaties. In recommendations released by letter dated January 24, 2019, the WHO has acknowledged the therapeutic value of cannabis and cannabis-related substances, such as CBD. As many UN signatory countries rely on the relevant Schedules, adoption of these recommendations will affect national policies on a global scale.

The WHO has made the following recommendations with regard to substance classification under the Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs (1961) (the “Convention”):

Cannabis and Cannabis Resin. Cannabis refers to the flowering or fruiting tops of the plant (excluding the seeds and leaves when not accompanied by the tops), while cannabis resin refers to the separated resin obtained from the cannabis plant. Cannabis and cannabis resin are currently listed in Schedules IV and I of the Convention. Recommendation:

  • Remove from Schedule IV of the Convention, the most restrictive category, which includes dangerous substances with extremely limited or no medical value (such as heroin and fentanyl).
  • Remain in Schedule I of the Convention, applying to drugs that are liable to abuse and may produce ill effects, but also have potential therapeutic uses. It is currently classified under both Schedules.

Dronabinol and tetrahydrocannabinol. Dronabinol refers to the primary psychoactive compound in botanical cannabis. Tetrahydrocannabinol (“THC”) is the principle psychoactive constituent of cannabis. The WHO’s recommendation, if implemented, would effectively group all forms of THC in the same category as cannabis and cannabis resin, simplifying the scheduling and providing consistency. Recommendation:

  • Remove from the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971 (a UN treaty designed to control psychoactive drugs), and instead add to Schedule I of the Convention.

Extracts and Tinctures. Extracts refer to herbal extracts, whereas tinctures are the concentrated liquid form of herbal extracts. Recommendation:

  • Remove from Schedule I of the Convention, in recognition that extracts and tinctures encompass diverse preparations with a variable concentration of THC, some of which have promising therapeutic applications.

CBD Preparations. Mixtures, solids or liquids containing predominantly CBD and not more than 0.2% THC. According to the WHO, these preparations do not fall under international control.

  • The ECDD confirmed that CBD, while found in cannabis and cannabis resin, does not have psychoactive properties, and therefore has no potential for abuse nor dependence. CBD was also recognized to be effective in certain therapeutic treatments.

Pharmaceutical Preparations. Mixtures, solid or liquids containing a drug, in this case cannabis, regulated by the pharmaceutical industry. Recommendation:

  • Add to Schedule III of the Convention, which concerns preparations of Schedule I or II drugs that are not liable to abuse and cannot produce ill effects, and the drug contained within the substance is not readily recoverable. This change would relax restrictions regarding the importation and exportation of pharmaceutical preparations that involve cannabis.
  • The ECDD recognized that there are pharmaceutical preparations containing THC and/or CBD that are not associated with problems of abuse or dependence, and whose THC cannot be diverted for non-medical use.

If adopted, these recommendations will represent a significant step in the normalization of cannabis globally, and may lead to an increase in access, availability, and research of cannabis and cannabis derivatives. Although limited to medicinal cannabis, these recommendations may encourage countries to reconsider national cannabis laws, in turn creating countless opportunities for organizations to get involved in or expand their activity in the cannabis market.

The McCarthy Tétrault Cannabis Law Group is always up to date on changes to the legislation and can assist clients successfully navigate the evolving demands of the high-growth cannabis market in Canada and internationally.

For more information, contact Ranjeev Dhillon, Rami Chalabi, Martha Harrison, or Leah Ostler.