Pubdate: Thu, 03 Dec 2020
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2020 The New York Times Company
Author: Isabella Kwai


A United Nations commission voted on Wednesday to remove cannabis for
medicinal purposes from a category of the world's most dangerous
drugs, a highly anticipated and long-delayed decision that could clear
the way for an expansion of marijuana research and medical use.

The vote by the Commission for Narcotic Drugs, which is based in
Vienna and includes 53 member states, considered a series of
recommendations from the World Health Organization on reclassifying
cannabis and its derivatives. But attention centered on a key
recommendation to remove cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single
Convention on Narcotic Drugs - where it was listed alongside dangerous
and highly addictive opioids like heroin.

Experts say that the vote will have no immediate impact on loosening
international controls because governments will still have
jurisdiction over how to classify cannabis. But many countries look to
global conventions for guidance, and United Nations recognition is a
symbolic win for advocates of drug policy change who say that
international law is out of date.

"This is a huge, historic victory for us, we couldn't hope for more,"
said Kenzi Riboulet-Zemouli, an independent researcher for drug policy
who has closely monitored the vote and the position of member states.
He said that cannabis had been used throughout history for medicinal
purposes and that the decision on Wednesday reinstated that status.

The change will most likely bolster medical research and legalization
efforts around the world.

The vote was a "big step forward," recognizing the positive impact of
cannabis on patients, said Dirk Heitepriem, a vice president at Canopy
Growth, a Canadian cannabis company. "We hope this will empower more
countries to create frameworks which allow patients in need to get
access to treatment."

Marijuana for medical use has exploded in recent years and products
containing cannabis derivatives like cannabidiol or CBD, a
nonintoxicating compound, have flooded the wellness industry. Cowen,
an investment and financial services company, estimates that the CBD
industry in the United States will be worth $16 billion by 2025.

Some research has suggested that CBD can protect the nervous system
and provide relief from seizures, pain, anxiety and inflammation. The
list of CBD-infused products - including creams, serums, soda water
and juice - is also expanding rapidly.

The recommendations for changing the classification of marijuana were
first made by the World Health Organization in 2019. But they were
politically divisive, which led to unusual delays in the United
Nations commission's vote.

The reclassification passed 27 to 25, with an abstention from Ukraine.
The United States and European nations were among those who voted in
favor, while the likes of China, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan and Russia
were opposed.

China's delegate said that, despite the United Nations move, the
country would strictly control cannabis "to protect from the harm and

Britain's delegate said that the reclassification was "in line with
the scientific evidence of its therapeutic benefits" but that the
country still strongly supported international controls for cannabis,
adding that marijuana presented "serious public health risks."

The differing messages underline the complexities behind the decision.
"It's been a diplomatic circus," said Mr. Riboulet-Zemouli, who added
that some countries initially opposed to the change, like France, had
since switched their position.

Michael Krawitz, executive director for Veterans for Medical Cannabis
Access, an advocacy group in the United States, said the change in
international law would "help reduce the suffering millions of people"
and could help mitigate reliance on opiates, noting that cannabis was
an important medication that could provide unique pain relief.

Also on Wednesday, the commission rejected a proposal to include the
cannabis derivative THC in the 1961 convention, which would have
tightened some controls.

The overhaul of cannabis policy, particularly around legalization for
medical use, has moved at a rapid pace over the last few years, said
Jessica Steinberg, managing director at the Global C, an international
cannabis consulting group. Industry insiders have expressed hope that
the vote will open the field for more research into the therapeutic
benefits of the drug.

But the impact on the American and European markets was driving the
issue, Ms. Steinberg noted. In the United States, where more states
legalized the use of medical and recreational marijuana in the recent
election, the market for both of those is expected to expand to more
than $34 billion by 2025, according to Cowen.

Before the vote this week and other decriminalization efforts, share
prices of some cannabis companies jumped.

But aside from the financial boon it could provide for American and
European marijuana markets, downgrading the dangers of cannabis may
have the biggest impact on countries that have more conservative
policies, such as many Caribbean and Asian nations.

"Something like this does not mean that legalization is just going to
happen around the world," Ms. Steinberg said. But "it could be a
watershed moment."