December 2, 2020

The UN Votes to Recognise the Potential Medical value of Cannabis

3min read

The UN has just accepted recommendations made by the World Health Organisation which reschedule cannabis and cannabis related substances, effectively accepting the medical potential of cannabis.

December 2nd, 2020

Conor O’Brien, George Brown


Up until today, cannabis and derivatives of cannabis have been maintained in Schedule IV of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. This schedule is for those drugs which have a high potential for abuse and harm and extremely limited medical use, such as fentanyl and heroin. In January of 2019, the World Health Organisation’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence made six recommendations to be voted on by the UN for subsequent adoption. After a number of delays, the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs convened for their 63rd session today to vote on whether or not to adopt the recommendations.


The recommendation with the most significant support leading up to the vote, and with far reaching consequence for international control of cannabis is the first recommendation 5.1, which was to:

“Delete cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV of the 1961 Convention”

The vote passed with a majority of 27 votes for and 25 against with 1 abstention. This means that cannabis will now be removed from Schedule IV.

This means that cannabis and its derivatives are now maintained in schedule I rather than being in schedule I and IV. This is a major win for cannabis advocates around the world with considerable symbolic and some practical implications for cannabis regulation. Removal of cannabis from schedule IV means that the UN accepts the opinion of the WHO that cannabis is not “liable to produce ill-effects” on the scale of other drugs in Schedule IV, and that cannabis has significant potential therapeutic value.

The fact that cannabis remains in Schedule I means that it is still subject to strict international control, so the immediate legal consequences for the regulation of cannabis are limited. However, in the words of the US representative at the vote Ethan Glick:

“This action has the potential to stimulate global research into the therapeutic potential and public health effects of cannabis and to attract additional investigators to the field including those who may have been deterred by the Schedule IV status.”

(Previous version of the schedule)

CBD will not be removed from international control

Recommendation 5.5 has been rejected by a majority of 43 votes against, 6 for and 4 abstentions, meaning the UN will not “Add a footnote on cannabidiol preparations to Schedule I of the 1961 Convention to read: Preparations containing predominantly cannabidiol and not more than 0.2 percent of delta-9- tetrahydrocannabinol are not under international control”. This means that CBD will remain in some legal ambiguity under the UN conventions. It is likely that many nations who voted against the bill were not against the liberalization of CBD in principle but may not have agreed with the specific recommendation. For example, the representative of Colombia Miguel Camilo Ruíz Blanco told the commission that “Colombia’s negative vote is based on the absence of clear language in these recommendations” rather than a principled opposition. The US took the position that this recommendation was not needed as “It is not our position that CBD is under international control under the drug conventions” as it is not specifically mentioned in relevant legislation.

It is likely that individual regions will continue to apply their own interpretations of the place of CBD in international control. Just last week, the highest EU courts determined that the 1961 Convention does not implicate CBD in international narcotics control.

Other recommendations

The other four recommendations made by the WHO were rejected by the majority of the 53 member states who voted.

Recommendation 5.2.1 would have added THC specifically to Schedule I, entailing some rearrangement of international controls without a significant loosening of restrictions on its use. Recommendation 5.2.1 was rejected by a majority 28 votes against and 23 against. This has the consequence that THC is not moved to Schedule I of the 1961 Convention. Furthermore, on the basis of the rejection of this motion the recommendations 5.2.1, 5.3.1, 5.3.2 and 5.6 were automatically rejected as these were contingent on the passing of 5.2.1.

Recommendation 5.4 which would “Delete extracts and tinctures of cannabis from Schedule I of the 1961 Convention” was rejected with 27 votes against and 24 votes in favor.

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The UN Votes to Recognise the Potential Medical value of Cannabis

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