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UN Relaxes International Control of Cannabis, Signaling Big Changes on the Horizon

Cannabis and cannabis resin, formerly classified on the most restrictive schedule under the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (Single Convention) were moved to the least restrictive schedule following a historic vote by the UN Commission for Narcotic Drugs on December 2, 2020.

On Wednesday, December 2, 2020, the UN’s Commission for Narcotic Drugs voted to remove “cannabis and cannabis resin” for medicinal purposes from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, adopting a World Health Organization recommendation made last year. With input from the Food and Drug Administration, the US voted in favor of removing cannabis from Schedule IV—a schedule reserved for drugs like heroin and fentanyl that pose a high risk of abuse or ill effects as compared to any potential therapeutic benefits. The removal from Schedule IV recognizes the legitimate medical utility of cannabis and cannabis resin and the lack of any significant risk of death or addiction. Cannabis and cannabis resin will still be subject to control under the Single Convention, but on Schedule I, the least-controlled schedule.

The full texts of the three main international conventions governing controlled substances—the Single Convention and the supplementary 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances and 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances—and revised schedules of drugs subject to international control, can be found here.

Implications in the United States: DEA May Finally Relax Cannabis Restrictions, Permitting Additional Research    

Although the UN’s rescheduling of cannabis and cannabis resin does not have any immediate impact on US cannabis laws or policies, it still represents a giant step forward for the US cannabis industry.

The Single Convention requires signatory countries to enact national legislation to implement the treaty’s requirements—which, in the United States, was accomplished with the enactment of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in 1970. The DEA—the agency tasked with the implementation and enforcement of the CSA—has historically cited the Single Convention’s stringent control of cannabis and cannabis resin and US international treaty obligations to justify the de-facto federal prohibition of most cannabis and cannabis-derived products. Although medical cannabis is now legal in some form in a majority of states, the DEA has refused to relax restrictions that prevent meaningful cannabis research in the US, citing international treaty obligations as one of the primary obstacles.

Importantly, the US supported the decision to reclassify cannabis and cannabis resin under the Single Convention—an apparent departure from DEA’s long-standing refusal to re- or de-schedule “marijuana” under the CSA and an apparent move towards facilitating additional cannabis research (some of which we described here). In explaining the US’s decision to support the decision, US representatives explained that although the US maintains its position that cannabis “continues to pose significant risks to public health and should continue to be controlled under the international drug conventions,” removing cannabis from the Single Convention’s most-controlled schedule could “stimulate global research into the therapeutic and public health effects of cannabis, and to attract additional investigators into the field.”

And following this same trend, on December 4, 2020, the House of Representatives voted to pass the historic Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2020 (MORE Act), which would decriminalize and deschedule cannabis and clear the way to erase nonviolent marijuana convictions. Although expected to fail in the Senate, if passed, the MORE Act would not only ease tensions between the federal government and the states, but also, now, more relaxed international standards.

International Implications: Trade Flow To Come

More than a symbolic gesture in the international community, the UN’s removal of cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV opens the door for countries to liberalize cannabis research and medical use. This does not happen automatically, because, as noted above, countries must still implement the change in their individual legal structures. And, countries will still be confined in the sense that the Single Convention still classifies cannabis at the least restrictive level, Schedule I.

While we do not expect an immediate impact or medicinal cannabis to be ready to ship tomorrow, we can expect that the UN vote will give the 53 countries party to the Single Convention cover to update their laws, allowing a more liberalized flow of trade for cannabis research and medical use.


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