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WHO Proposes Removing Cannabis From List of Drugs in International Treaty

  • A man holds a jar of cannabis buds at an expo in Pretoria, South Africa.

    A man holds a jar of cannabis buds at an expo in Pretoria, South Africa. | Photo: Reuters

Published 7 February 2019

Weed is currently under the most strictly controlled category in the United Nation's Treaty of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961. 

The World Health Organization has proposed changing the status of Cannabis within international law to favor the investigation of its therapeutic properties, to be addressed at a United Nations meeting in Vienna, Austria, this March.

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After a scientific evaluation that culminated in November 2018, experts at the organization recommended in their final report "to eliminate cannabis and cannabis oil from list IV",  which is the most strictly controlled category in the Treaty of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961. 

The WHO committee said that list IV is composed of "harmful substances with limited medical benefits" and added that they believe that maintaining cannabis "at this level of control would severely restrict access and research on possible therapies derived from the plant." 

In a public letter, Jan. 24, to the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, the Director-General of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recommended reclassifying cannabis worldwide by removing it from Schedule IV of the 1961 treaty. 

The health organization will attempt to put it to a vote between the 53 countries which make up the commission of narcotics during the 62nd Session of the United Nations. A two-thirds vote would be needed for the decision to be passed.

The substance is currently legal in at least four countries, first in Uruguay in South America and then in South Africa, Canada and Thailand last year. In the United States, cannabis is currently legal for medical use in 33 states while 10 have legalized it for recreational use.

 A poll by the Pew Research Center in the U.S. found that 62 percent of people, including 74 percent of millennials, said they supported legalizing marijuana.

Chronic pain most common reason U.S. patients get medical marijuana, according to a study published in Health Affairs. Almost two-thirds of patients in the U.S. who receive medical marijuana are using it to treat chronic pain. A large number of U.S. residents suffer chronic pain and there is strong scientific evidence that marijuana is an effective pain treatment.

About 65 percent of medical marijuana patients used it for chronic pain. Other most common medical reasons for weed include multiple sclerosis, nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

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Based on a 2017 report by the U.S.'s National Academies of Science that assessed the scientific evidence supporting the use of marijuana to treat specific conditions, the study team also looked at how often medical uses are evidence-based. They found uses had strong backing 86 percent of the time.

"The vast majority of conditions for which people use cannabis have substantial or conclusive evidence of cannabis being an effective treatment," said lead study author Kevin Boehnke of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

"Medical cannabis patients are placed in a position where they typically have no choice but to experiment to find their optimal dosing regimen. Safety is definitely a concern, especially when smoking or taking high doses of THC." 

Even though many states have legalized medical marijuana, the U.S. government still classifies it as a "schedule 1" substance with no medical use and a high potential for abuse. 

It is uncertain if the U.N.'s decision would alter the U.S. federal classification if indeed the WHO recommendation receives the international recognition sought after.

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