Significant Move or Symbolic Gesture?

With everything else going on in the international news hugging the headlines, 2020 nevertheless provided more positive news stories in terms of moving towards greater acceptance of cannabis in the world. In December, the United Nations’s drug policy making body voted to remove cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, its first shift in a hard line stance for nearly 60 years.

The decision is one that has been delayed by two years and was first debated in December 2019, as was covered in Weed World issue (140). It was taken in regards to medical cannabis only – and specifically its listing as a Schedule IV substance, along with drugs such as heroin – which are deigned as having little or no therapeutic purpose. So before we go any further, it is important to reiterate that this decision has no (direct) correlation to reversing the illegality of cannabis for non-medicinal and non-scientific purposes.

As with all things UN related, there are many bodies at work beneath the grand umbrella. As a result, there are also many acronyms to contend with and so it is worth taking a moment to clarify the picture about who voted for what. The vote was carried out by the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) – made up of 53 member states - and was based on the recommendations of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The WHO presented six recommendations to the CND in January 2019, including the removal of cannabis from the Schedule IV list, as well as the removal of CBD and extracts and tinctures from Schedule I. Significantly the removal of cannabis from Schedule lV was the only WHO recommendation approved by the CND. So the December decision should be seen as a minor victory, but was very far from being a unanimous international endorsement for the legalization movement. Indeed, the closeness of the vote suggests that the world is still very much divided on cannabis. While the USA was one of the 27 nations that backed the vote, 25 nations voted against including Russia, China and Japan, while one member country abstained.  

The vote may well have been a historical one, but what does it actually mean? As with many UN pronouncements, wording is kept vague and open to interpretation for member states to adapt and entwine with national policy. UN News, the media voice piece of the organisation, stated that, with the vote ‘the CND has opened the door to recognizing the medicinal and therapeutic potential of the drug, although its use for non-medical and non-scientific purposes will continue to remain illegal.’ This has been interpreted as a green light for more research into the medical benefits of cannabis and is expected to lead to more countries joining the existing list of 50 which – at the start of play in 2021 - already have some kind of state medicinal cannabis programme.

Cannabis think tank FAAAT (For Alternative Approaches to Addiction, Think- & do –tank), which has taken a lead in lobbying the CND for change, said of the decision, “The WHO has the sole responsibility in the treaty to issue these recommendations: today’s vote by governments gathered at the UN was required to pass them into international law. The removal from Schedule IV is, therefore, phenomenal news for millions of patients around the world and a historical victory of science over politics.”

The fact that the decision relates to a UN convention is seen as significant, because most states’ drugs policies are aligned with conventions adopted at UN level. As such, states are wary of formulating policies that contravene UN conventions as doing so risks censure by other member states. However, the UN’s decision will lead to change, as FAAAT spokesperson, Kenzi Riboulet-Zamouli, explained to Weed World, “As a result of this decision, many countries don’t even need to bring these changes to national policy.

To use Spain as an example, a change in Convention scheduling is automatically equivalent to a change in Spanish national law. And that's the case for a lot of countries.” Asked if the decision will have a notable impact on medical cannabis research, he replied, “Of course! This is the point on which almost everybody agreed, even the countries that voted no like Russia. Nobody can oppose research, and even prohibitionist countries have acknowledged the therapeutic usefulness of cannabis, hence stating they are interested in eventually following how research advances and how it'll maybe call for yet further changes in the future.” 

Nevertheless there are others who question the real impact of this decision and its significance for bringing about a further shift in how the world treats cannabis at the level of national policy making. Social anthropologist, Dr Jonathan Newman (University of Sussex) has been studying the cannabis industry for the best part of the decade and was present at the original presentation of the WHO recommendations to the CND in Vienna in December 2018. He said of the CND’s final decision, “It’s encouraging but not necessarily the game changer it first seems to be, so we will see what happens over time. Yes, in the countries that voted for this decision, the goal posts may move a little, but the voting breakdown reflects that there is an element of singing with the choir you’re listening to.    

Perhaps more revealing is the list of countries which voted against this recommendation, and indeed the fact that that the other five recommendations originally made by the WHO were rejected.  Votes against included some major states that didn’t want movement on the issue. It’s important to remember that while some countries are embracing the new market and running away with branding and promoting cannabis as a ‘new’ product, in many parts of the world the illegal activity related to cannabis – such as smuggling and money movements – oils other wheels alongside government interests. So the victory, if there is one, is rather selective. As a final note, it also does lead one to wonder why political change had to wait until big money (ostensibly from within North America and the USA) became involved in cannabis.”

Whether medical users will see a change on the ground is the big question that many patients self-medicating with cannabis will be seeking an answer to. It’s easy to reel off a list of countries already engaged in medicinal cannabis initiatives on paper but, as has been well publicised in the UK, the reality of patient access is an obstacle course of red tape and unfulfilled expectations.

Crispin Blunt MP, from the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform released a statement saying, “Today’s vote on medical cannabis is a welcome step and I commend the UK government on its vote for sensible, evidence-based reform. There is much further to go however. The WHO’s review revisited cannabis scheduling decisions made in the 1950s, which were driven by prevailing racist and colonial attitudes, and not based on scientific evaluations.

After today’s vote most of this analysis has been rejected as governments have preferred to pursue strict control measures despite the evidence mounting on the negative impacts on health, justice and human rights. The government should listen to the evidence and pave the way not only for better access to medical cannabis for millions of patients across the world, but draw on our strength in research and bioscience and support the development of a nascent yet burgeoning industry with its associated jobs and investment – an industry estimated to balloon to over £2.2bn in 2024, with the right support.”

Meanwhile, as the big political cogs shift a little on the world stage, they are not shifting fast enough for the majority of medical patients in the UK who still face the prospect of having to operate outside the law to self-supply cannabis. Chris Tasker is the CEO of Global Cannabinoid Solutions, a cannabis science firm, based in the UK, works alongside industry leaders and the cannabis social movements, empowering them with the latest science and information. Chris has worked with patient groups and cannabis social clubs across the UK and is sceptical about what this means for those patients on the front line.  

“It’s a start,” he says, “Legislation always trails behind science and society and as such our drug legislation reflects some rather outdated views. Let us not forget the UN was integral to starting this war on drugs that has cost many lives a millions of dollars. We have medical cannabis policies, but the actual access for patients remains woefully inadequate. In the UK law we still criminalise 99% of our population for cannabis possession.

Millions of that 99% are patients. Our legislation is some 20 years behind our scientific understanding of cannabis. The science is here, we just need the political will to evolve and adopt evidence based cannabis policy. This UN ruling is a step in the right direction but of little use to patients on the frontline.  Patients like Tony Bevington – whose plight has been well publicised - a gentleman in his eighties, still facing radical legal action and potential prison time for growing his own cannabis.”   

Obviously any decision that removes restrictions on medical cannabis is a positive one. Nevertheless, only time will tell as to whether this decision is significant or largely symbolic. Until the picture becomes clearer, this means that the relief which medical cannabis brings will continue to come with potential criminal consequences for many thousands of patients around the world who are self medicating with the plant.  

Written and Published By Che Capri in Weed World Magazine issue 150