In December 2020, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) is expected to vote on whether to reschedule cannabis and cannabis-related substances under the UN Drug Treaties. The vote comes after a 2019 World Health Organization’s (WHO) Expert Committee on Drug Dependence recommendation that cannabis and several cannabis-related substances should be rescheduled. If passed, the amendments to the schedules will further validate that cannabis has a medical purpose, as well as liberalize certain aspects of international cannabis regulation, including regulations in respect of cannabidiol (commonly referred to as CBD), under the treaties. Such amendments could lead to subsequent domestic progress on cannabis import and export.
Here, we recap what you need to know about the upcoming vote at the CND and its implications for global cannabis trade.
The current lay of the land: schedule based restriction under the UN Drug Treaties
The UN Drug Treaties provide the global architecture for cannabis regulation. Each treaty provides specific obligations undertaken by member states that are implemented in their domestic legislation. The table below sets out key obligations relating to cannabis in the 1961 and 1971 Conventions.
|1961 Convention||Limits and controls the possession, use, trade in, distribution, import, export, manufacture and production of drugs exclusively for medical and scientific purposes. Requires states to provide estimates and statistics relating to manufacturing, medical and scientific use, among other issues. Requires certain licensing regimes to be implemented and governmental approval for cultivation.|
|1971 Convention||Established an international control system for psychotropic substances. Limits and controls the manufacture, export, import, distribution and stocks of, trade in, and use and possession of substances. Requires certain licensing regimes to be implemented. Requires medical prescription for certain substances and certain warning packaging and labelling. Requires record-keeping for those that distribute regulated substances.|
The Conventions’ schedules, which include all regulated substances, dictate the level of control a substance will receive. In this regard, to a certain extent, cannabis liberalization under the treaties is tied to how cannabis and related substances are scheduled. This underlines the importance of the WHO’s proposals.
Under the 1961 Convention’s schedule, cannabis and cannabis resin are included in Schedule I and Schedule IV of the 1961 Convention. Substances included in both these Schedules have a high potential for abuse, produce ill-effects and have little or no therapeutic use. Other substances that are included in both Schedules I and IV are fentanyl, heroin and other opioids that are considered especially dangerous.
Under the 1971 Convention, Cannabis derivatives, tetrahydrocannabinol and delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (known as THC) are currently under Schedule I and II respectively, of the 1971 Convention. Schedule I contains drugs with a high risk of abuse, especially serious risk to public health, whose therapeutic value is not acknowledged by the CND. Schedule II contains drugs with a risk of abuse, with low or moderate therapeutic value.
WHO’s recommendations for rescheduling cannabis & cannabis-related substances
In 2019, the WHO recommended that cannabis be rescheduled. These recommendations were the outcome of a multi-year review process conducted by the Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD), an independent scientific advisory body to the WHO. More specifically, the ECDD made the following recommendations based on their review, which will be subject to the upcoming vote at the CND by member states:
- Delete cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV of the 1961 Convention.
- Adding dronabinol (main psychoactive substance in the cannabis plant) and its stereoisomers (delta-9-THC) to Schedule I of the Convention.
- If recommendation #2 is adopted, delete dronabinol and its stereoisomers (delta-9-THC) from Schedule II of the 1971 Convention.
- If recommendation #2 is adopted, add tetrahydrocannabinol to Schedule I of the Convention.
- If recommendation #4 is adopted, delete tetrahydrocannabinol from Schedule I of the 1971 Convention.
- Delete extracts and tinctures of cannabis from Schedule I of the Convention.
- Adding a footnote on cannabidiol preparations to Schedule I of the Convention to read: “Preparations containing predominantly cannabidiol and not more than 0.2 percent of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol are not under international control”.
- Add preparations containing dronabinol, produced either by chemical synthesis or as preparations of cannabis that are compounded as pharmaceutical preparations with one or more other ingredients and in such a way that dronabinol cannot be recovered by readily available means or in a yield which would constitute a risk to public health, to Schedule III of the Convention. As a note, Schedule III of the Convention has a less rigorous control regime than Schedule I and IV of the Convention.
ECDD’s rationale for these recommendations can be found here. A compilation of all questions by Member States and answers by the WHO leading up to the December vote can be found here. The vote may pass and subsequently incorporate some or all of the WHO’s recommendations.
Implications for the future of cannabis trade
If accepted, the WHO’s recommendations could have far-reaching implications under the UN Drug Treaties and on national regulatory frameworks and policies.
These recommendations would achieve under the UN Drug Treaties on four main points:
- Cannabis would be removed from Schedule IV of the Convention. In doing so, the CND would acknowledge that cannabis has a medical benefit and has medicinal value. Cannabis would still have international control as it would remain in Schedule I of the 1961 Convention i.e. trade would still be restricted to medical and scientific purposes. The EDCC cited public health problems arising from cannabis use to justify its continued presence on Schedule I of the 1961 Convention. Practically, this amendment would be largely symbolic. However, the admission of medical value by the international community may be a catalyst for domestic liberalization of cannabis legislation in certain countries.
- CBD preparations (meaning a mixture, solid or liquid, containing a drug) commonly known as CBD extract would be removed from international control. The addition of the footnote clarifies this point, which was previously uncertain under the 1961 Convention’s Schedule. CBD preparations, such as prescription cannabidiol, has already received regulatory approval in certain jurisdictions. Assuming this amendment is approved, CBD preparations could be transported and manufactured internationally without the risk of violating the Convention. This may provide for significant opportunities for trade in CBD, assuming existing domestic legislation permits or is accordingly amended to allow such international trade.
- Streamlining of cannabis and cannabis-related substances under the UN Drug Treaties. For example, amendments relating to dronabinol and tetrahydrocannabinol ensure that these substances are subject to the same controls as cannabis under the UN Drug Treaties. Further, clarification on extracts (e.g. live resin, wax, distillate) and tinctures (e.g. liquid THC) will now be based on the underlying ingredients (e.g. delta-9 THC, cannabis without psychoactive properties, cannabidiol) rather than the broader label of extracts and tinctures.
- Adding pharmaceutical preparations of cannabis and dronabinol to Schedule III of the 1961 Convention could allow for easier sales of registered medicines with cannabis. Such medicine is used to treat multiple sclerosis and side effects of AIDS and cancer chemotherapy. In brief, this would allow states to sell such medicines without prescriptions. Further, there are no requirements for the International Narcotics Control Board estimates for production and use, there are exceptions to certain licensing requirements, and pharmacists and traders would not be required to retain records. Such preparations would still be subject to trade controls but would allow states to sell pharmaceutical preparations of cannabis and dronabinol more easily.
If adopted, the proposed amendments would move the UN Drug Treaties towards liberalization of cannabis and cannabis-related substances. These changes alone will not fundamentally alter the current international cannabis trade landscape. Cannabis will remain a controlled substance, meaning that international trade would still be limited to medical and scientific purposes. However, this may be an initial opening that is the start of a gradual shift in international law and policy towards cannabis liberalization. As noted above, the amendments may cause states to reconsider their own domestic cannabis legislation to ensure that their industries can benefit from any liberalization under the UN Drug Treaties, specifically in relation to medical cannabis, CBD extract with little to no THC, and pharmaceuticals. The proposed amendments also open the door to further research advancements relating to cannabis.
If you have any questions about cannabis regulation and trade and the potential implications of the CND’s decision on your company, please contact Sean Stephenson.
 The core UN drug control treaties are the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, as amended by the 1972 Protocol (1961 Convention), the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances (1971 Convention), and the 1988 United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (1988 Convention) (collectively referred to as UN Drug Treaties).