The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (UNCND) voted on the exemption of cannabis and its resin from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in a vote passed on 2 December 2020.
While it was excluded from Schedule IV, cannabis remains in the 1961 treaty's Schedule I. According to the US Department of Justice, Schedule I contains substances that carry a risk of abuse, but have considerable potential for medicinal use, while Schedule IV consists of drugs that are more susceptible to abuse and the risk of ill-effects is not compensated by significant therapeutic benefits. Schedule IV is a subset of Schedule I, which suggests that Schedule IV is a list of the drugs in Schedule I without any medicinal significance. Although Schedule I drugs can be used (with state approval) for medical purposes, Schedule IV drugs are strictly regulated and their possession is a criminal offence.
There is a lot of misinformation being spread around with regards to the interpretation of this vote. Multiple social media handles have reported that cannabis has been declared "medicine" by the UN. This is not true. It has simply been deleted from a list of dangerous, addictive substances that lack sufficient medical benefits, where it was listed alongside drugs like heroin. Although the UN vote to exempt cannabis from Schedule IV is a major step forward, it does not mean that cannabis is now recognized internationally as a "medicine."
What it really means
Cannabis has been subject to the strictest regulatory policies for 59 years, which has also deterred its use for medicinal purposes. But the decision to delete it from Schedule IV is expected to alter the manner in which cannabis is globally regulated. The CND opened the door to understanding the medicinal and therapeutic value of an extensively used but still predominantly prohibited recreational drug with a landmark vote of 27 in favour, 25 against and one abstention.
In addition, the decision may also lead to more scientific researching into the long-heralded medicinal properties of the plant. The reclassification of cannabis could serve as a catalyst for countries to legalize the drug for medicinal use and to rethink laws on its recreational use. With the passage of this vote, cannabis has now been rescheduled to a regulation level that will reduce harm inflicted by the use of cannabis and at the same time, will not serve as a barrier to access, study and develop the medicinal properties of cannabis.
When you consider that cannabis was placed in Schedule IV without ever having been subjected to any scientific evaluation, the change is much more relevant. Schedule IV was an archaic law for cannabis, to say the least, given the fact that it was labelled as heroin in the same group. In fact, cocaine, which is more harmful than cannabis, is included in Schedule I but not Schedule IV.
How it happened
In January 2019, six recommendations concerning the classification of cannabis in UN drug control treaties were presented by the World Health Organization (WHO). The recommendations of the WHO were based on a report by the Expert Committee on Drug Dependence, which noted that there was no proof that cannabis plants and cannabis resins caused harmful effects equivalent to other drugs in Schedule IV. Among the several points of the WHO, it specified that cannabidiol (CBD) - a non-intoxicating compound - is not subject to international controls. In recent years, CBD has taken on a prominent role in holistic treatments and sparked a billion-dollar industry.
The comprehensive set of six WHO cannabis recommendations come with implicit or explicit requirements and some require a special majority for adoption. While Recommendation 5.1 (i.e. the exclusion of cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV) was passed, the other recommendations were not supported by the Commission.
In addition to 5.1, the WHO proposed to :
5.2.1 Add Δ-9-THC (the compound in cannabis that makes you "high") to Schedule I and delete it from Schedule II.
5.4 Delete "cannabis extracts and tinctures" from Schedule I
5.5 And to add a footnote to Schedule I CBD preparations. The footnote was drafted ambiguously and recommended that CBD preparations with less than 0.2% THC would not be under international control, without specifying how the THC content should be measured.
These have all been rejected.
While the proposals were initially expected to be voted on during the March 2019 session of the CND, several nations asked for more time to review the endorsements and determine their positions. Finally, at the 63rd session of the UNCND, held from 2-4 December 2020, countries voted on the recommendations made by the WHO almost two years after the first suggestions were made.
It is important to remember that only cannabis and its derivatives that are used for medicinal purposes were voted on by the CND. Recreational marijuana, hemp and its derivatives, and CBD added to food, topicals and dietary supplements were not subject to CND’s vote. (Hemp and its derivatives are only considered controlled substances by the CND when they are used for medicinal or scientific purposes.)
Cannabis treatment programs have now been implemented by more than 50 nations. Uruguay and Canada have legalized it with Mexico and Luxembourg close to becoming the third and fourth countries do so. One of the issues posed to voters on the ballot paper during the recent federal elections in the US was the legalization of cannabis use. While 35 U.S. states allow the use of medicinal cannabis, 15 have now legalized recreational cannabis.
Given the change in global perception in recent years, the declassification of cannabis from a Schedule IV prescription is not shocking. It is in line with worldwide trends and growing study being carried out due to favourable laws.
What it means for India
The news comes in the wake of the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) making high-profile Bollywood arrests over possession of cannabis. Since the NCB began investigating suspected drug usage in the Indian film industry after the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput in June this year, cannabis use has come to the fore in the news cycle in recent months. With the media frenzy, there has been a renewed debate on the legal status of cannabis, especially given its thousands of years of cultural and historical roots in India.
India has voted to eliminate cannabis from the list of most dangerous substances in favour of a deeply divided resolution in the UN Commission on National Drugs. India did not disclose the details of its vote, but according to some sources, the Indian position was that the medical use of marijuana was "promising". Recreational use of entertainment will continue to be strictly prohibited in India.
The development, experts claim, is likely to soften India's position on the possession or consumption of the plant drug that attract strict punishment under the present Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act. But the vote will have no direct impact on drug laws in India.