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WHO Proposes Downgrading Cannabis Under International Law For First Time


Katy Evans

Katy is Managing Editor at IFLScience where she oversees editorial content from News articles to Features, and even occasionally writes some.

Managing Editor


The WHO has proposed to the UN that cannabis be downgraded under international law after reviewing scientific studies on the potential benefits of it. Yargin/Shutterstock 

The World Health Organization (WHO) is proposing downgrading cannabis under international law for the first time, in light of growing evidence of its legitimate medicinal benefits.

Currently classified by the WHO (US classification is slightly different) as schedule IV – the same class as heroin – which is the most strictly controlled category, the WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) has proposed to reschedule cannabis, and other cannabis-related products as a schedule I classification. What’s more, they’ve proposed removing non-THC (the psychoactive component of cannabis) cannabis products, such as CBD oil, from international drug controls completely.


In November last year, the WHO’s ECDD met to carry out the first full review of cannabis and cannabis-related substances since it was first listed under the International Drug Control Conventions as schedule IV in 1961.

The WHO schedule categories, first implemented to categorize the potential health risks and benefits of specific substances, range from schedule I – substances with addictive properties and risk of abuse, to schedule IV, the most harmful of the schedule I substances, with the addition of having extremely limited medical or therapeutic value. Cannabis currently come under both.

The WHO is proposing to the United Nations that cannabis be deleted from schedule IV, and Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is currently listed separately as scientists had not identified THC as the psychoactive component of cannabis in 1961, be downgraded to schedule I in light of mounting evidence of the potential for medicinal and therapeutic value.

“The Committee recognized the public health harms presented by these substances, as well as their potential for therapeutic and scientific use,” the WHO stated. “As a result, the Committee recommended a more rational system of international control surrounding cannabis and cannabis-related substances that would prevent drug-related harms whilst ensuring that cannabis-derived pharmaceutical preparations are available for medical use.”


They have also recommended that extracts and tinctures derived from cannabidiol (CBD), which doesn’t contain a psychoactive component, be removed completely from the scheduling, and thus not be restricted under international law.

The review is long overdue in the face of scientific research into the health benefits of the drug, which weren't available back in 1961. However, as research continues, attitudes have been changing towards cannabis and it is now legal for medical use in 30 countries around the world, including Canada, some parts of the US, Mexico, Germany, Denmark, Finland, Israel, Argentina, and Australia, with many more under review.

Studies have linked the medical use of cannabis with helping manage chronic pain, epilepsy, depression, and psychosis, and though it isn't a cure-all for cancer, it has been linked to helping patients deal with nausea caused by chemotherapy, amongst others. The new classification would allow for further scientific and medical research into the benefits of THC and CBD.

“These recommendations are of monumental importance as they may lead to the overcoming of barriers to research, enhance access of patients to cannabis-based medicine, and allow free commerce of cannabis products internationally,” Ethan Russo of the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute told Newsweek.


The UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs will vote on the recommendation in March.


[H/T: The BMJ]


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