The United Nations Continues to Classify Cannabis Among The World's Most Dangerous Drugs

While numerous countries have reformed their marijuana laws, the United Nations nevertheless continues to cling to an archaic classification of cannabis that considers it as dangerous as substances like heroin and cocaine. And that classification isn't going to change anytime soon.

Last month, The World Health Organization (WHO) postponed their recommendation for reclassification of cannabis, which they were supposed to deliver to the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs before the end of the year.

On the recommendation of WHO, the Commission could have reclassified cannabis from its current Schedule I classification, where it is listed alongside cocaine and heroin, among other dangerous substances.

Lezli Engelking, founder and CEO of international cannabis non-profit FOCUS, recently represented the US at the International Cannabis Policy Conference, discussing global cannabis standards with policy makers at the UN Headquarters in Vienna, Austria. She told Civilized that the delay likely has a lot to do with the scope that changing the classification of cannabis could bring.

"WHO could have easily provided a recommendation to leave cannabis at its existing scheduling – a decision that would have long lasting implications," she said. "When the WHO is able to provide guidance to the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the global implications are enormous. It will allow nations around the globe to participate in an industry that has potential to bring economic development and wealth."

Three UN drug treaties, one of which dates back to 1961, saw the member states pledge to ban cannabis, along with other Schedule I drugs.

But several countries have ignored the ban in recent years, including Canada, which legalized cannabis in 2018. While Engelking notes that there are no “specific implications” for Canada yet, any country that has legalized cannabis is "out of compliance" with the UN’s existing drug treaties.

But Canada is not alone in this. Although Canada and Uruguay are the only two member states that have legalized recreational use, a total of 30 countries have implemented legislation that allows medical marijuana in some capacity. In fact, Engelking said that it is precisely because there are so many member states out of step with the ban that the review was initiated in the first place.

"This is one of the reasons a thorough review was originally initiated, in order to rectify this situation," she said.

But while the delay could give WHO more time to develop their recommendations, it also slows down the process a great deal. The earliest date that the WHO will be able to provide their recommendation is at the next meeting in March, according to Engelking.

Since UN policy does not permit the commission to both receive and vote on recommendations in the same meeting, WHO’s recommendations cannot be enacted until the following meeting, which isn’t scheduled until late 2019, meaning it’s likely that reclassification will not happen until 2020 at the earliest.

But while the process appears to be moving at a snail’s pace, Engelking said that a faster process could be adopted specifically for this issue. 

"This is the first time in the history of the world that WHO has delayed making a recommendation," Engelking said. "[So] it is entirely possible that new policy could be developed to expedite the process."

In the meantime, it appears that UN will continue to count cannabis among the world’s most dangerous drugs…at least for another year.

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