Marijuana within the
international drug control
treaty framework:
Towards descheduling

#ProCannabisTeam

Cannabis was set among the worst “narcotic drugs”, equivalent to opium or cocaine, after a strange and obscure process of inscription within the international drug control regime that started in 1925. All countries have followed this scheduling and placed marijuana and its related medicines and health products within the strictest national laws, impeding a proper access, research, production, trade, and quality certifications.

Unlike all drugs submitted to international control, Cannabis has never been scientifically assessed when it was included at first in the scheduled of the international treaties, and was not even reassessed after the discovery of THC in 1964, neither after dozens of new clinical applications were evidenced by researchers around the planet.

Our Civil Society working and action group (under the nickname #ProCannabisTeam), in a joint effort with key academics, experts and organizations (including medical doctors and patients’ organizations), have been following-up alt the process concerning the international scheduling of cannabis and cannabis pharmaceutical preparations, and the processes towards a change in the status of its scheduling.

 

Research and contextual analysis.

The international drug control treaty system, which considers cannabis as one of the drugs with the highest potential of harm and the least medical usefulness, hasn’t changed since 1961. While the current classification of cannabis in the treaty is, almost unbelievably, from an outdated evidentiary process conducted before 1961, no scientific evidence-based process have been led to assess cannabis and schedule in in the right place since that date. It is important to recognize the extreme complexity of international drug policy related to substance scheduling, but also its primary and central role in the prohibition regime, and its impact on day-to-day practices and local policies.

The process of Critical Review, the only one able to change the status of cannabis within the treaties schedules, is a routine internal process of the World Health Organization (WHO), supposed to be the only and easiest easy way to reform medical marijuana’ status in the treaty. It has however been repeatedly blocked since the adoption of the 1961 treaty (Single Convention on narcotic drugs), while it could and should have happened long ago, while delta-9-THC was discovered in 1964 and scientific research on medical cannabis increased in the past 40 years.

One of our first task have been to clear and enlighten the reality of the hidden historical process that led to the current scheduling. That process started in 1925 with the inclusion of so-called “Indian hemp” in the by-then anti-opium treaties, was supposed to be supported by a mysterious scientific assessment from 1935, and was finally locked between 1953 and 1961 by the diplomats preparing the text of the 1961 Single Convention. This history (where most of the archives have disappeared) hides many forgotten key elements that need to be revealed and known, about both the process that led to the scheduling of cannabis (1925-1961), and the obstacles that appeared against the critical review since then (1961-2016).

Advocacy and prospective.

Therefore, changing or removing cannabis from the strictest schedule (implicating the strictest control measures) of the treaties will have profound effects on increasing room and opportunities for medical research, access and supply, as well as easing off the pressure against reform, at the country level.

Finally in November 2016, after 3 years of intense and continued advocacy and pressure on the WHO, the Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD, an independant group of scientists whom secretariat is handled by the WHO) decided to start again the process of collecting data and outcomes of researches, to study again the case of “Cannabis and Cannabis resin” and its scheduling within the international drug control treaties schedules. After decades of research and years of advocacy, the undue pre-review and critical review of cannabis will finally happen, with May 2018 as a deadline.

Therefore, the process is not finished, and actions must be taken in order to (1) provide the accurate information on achieved and ongoing medical cannabis researches, and ensure that all relevant data is submitted, duly received and acknowledged by the experts (2) ensure that no internal blockage of the process will happen within the WHO, (3) make sure that the recommendations of the Experts are not undermined by political pressure and (4) ensure a vote of the Experts recommendations by the Commission on Narcotic Drugs.

Upcoming actions

May 2017, 70th World Health Assembly — WHO, Geneva

June 2017, High Level Political Review of SDG#3 “Health and well-being” — UN, New-York

Sept. 2017, ICACO conference on cannabis — Conference centre, Vienna

Nov. 2017, ECDD 39th meeting — WHO, Geneva

Dec. 2017, 60th reconvened Commission on narcotic drugs — UN, Vienna

March 2018, 61st Commission on narcotic drugs — UN, Vienna

April 2018, ECDD 40th special meeting dedicated to Cannabis — WHO, Geneva

May 2018, 71st World Health Assembly — WHO, Geneva

Nov. 2018, ECDD 41st meeting —WHO, Geneva

Nov. 2018, UN General Assembly Committee C discussions on drugs — UN, New-York

March 2019, 62nd Commission on narcotic drugs — UN, Vienna

March 2017
60th regular session of the Commission on Narcotic Drug (CND)
See the actions undertaken (Presence & advocacy actions)
Dec. 2016
59th reconvened session Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND)
See the actions undertaken (Presence & advocacy actions)
Nov. 2016
38th meeting of the WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD)
See the actions undertaken (Communication to the World Health Organization's officials, presence & advocacy actions)
Nov. 2016
World Health Organization Library and Archives
See the actions undertaken (Research)
Oct. 2016
59th Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) intersessionnal meetings on the post-UNGASS process
See the actions undertaken (Written statement and communication)

Reassessing substances: one proposed reading of the UNGASS 2016 outcome document.

Contribution to the post-UNGASS 2016 thematic debates organized by the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, on October 10th, 11th, 27th and 28th 2016. This contribution has been posted online on the website of the UNODC and can be downloaded on our own website (only in English).

 

May 2016
69th World Health Assembly
See the actions undertaken (Presence, advocacy, networking and post-UNGASS)
May 2016
United Nations office in Geneva’s Library & League of Nations Archives
See the actions undertaken (Research)
April 2016
30th Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the ‘World drug problem’ – UNGASS 2016
See the actions undertaken (Presence, advocacy, networking)
March 2016
59th regular session of the Commission on Narcotic Drug (CND)
See the actions undertaken (Presence, advocacy, networking and pre-UNGASS)
Nov. 2015
37th meeting of the WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD)
See the actions undertaken (Oral statement to the Experts, presence & advocacy actions)
March 2015
International Medical Cannabis and Cannabinoids conference: “Policy, Science, and Medical Practice”
See the actions undertaken (Involvement in the foundation of IMCPC)
March 2007
50th regular session of the Commission on Narcotic Drug (CND)
See the actions undertaken (Presence, follow-up of the THC descheduling vote)

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Nowadays, Cannabis is still scheduled as a substance liable to abuse and highly addictive, with particularly dangerous properties and little or no therapeutic values (Schedules I and IV of the 1961 Single Convention), just like heroin. Despite the discovery of THC in the 1960’s, despite the discovery of the endocannabinoid system in the 1990’s, despite the growing number of diseases for which Cannabis is scientifically proven to have an useful therapeutic effect, Cannabis has not had any critical review since the year 1935 !

The Critical Review is the official mechanism by which a committee of experts called for the special occasion, within the World Health Organization (WHO), revises all the existing data and knowledge about a narcotic drug. This Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) analyzes the information in order to establish the real potency, the assessed therapeutic effects, and the real health or social harms and risks that can be produced by each “narcotic” plant or substance. After making a Critical review, the ECDD delivers to the United Nations system and to the governments of the world a recommendation on the level of control to be applied.

In 1965, the ECDD (Expert Committee on Drug Dependance) made a pre-review that did not lead to any result.
In 1991, the ECDD recommended the descheduling of THC from the list of most harmful substances.

Today, the whole plant has to be descheduled from the tables I and IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the very international lock against any Cannabis policy reform at national level. But this have to be assessed by a Critical review by the ECDD, 81 years after the previous one.

We have been working on this topic for years, and today, our aim is to transform these preparatory reflexions into a concrete change, and to engage the WHO ECDD in a Critical review of Cannabis.

sc1961

CRITICALR

The Critical reviews comes naturally after our actions undertaken at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna (Austria) in preparation for the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the world drug problem (UNGASS). The final declaration of this UNGASS goes in the direction of a review of substances, recognizing that “the world drug problem […] demands a […] multidisciplinary […] scientific evidence-based and comprehensive approach” and “reaffirm[ing] the treaty-mandated roles of […] the World Health Organization”.

It is Time to advocate for a change of paradigm in the international drug control system starting with the long overdue Critical review of Cannabis !

The Critical Review is the official mechanism by which a committee of experts called for the special occasion, within the World Health Organization (WHO), revises all the existing data and knowledge about a narcotic drug. This Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) analyzes the information in order to establish the real potency, the assessed therapeutic effects, and the real health or social harms and risks that can be produced by each “narcotic” plant or substance. After making a Critical review, the ECDD delivers to the United Nations system and to the governments of the world a recommendation on the level of control to be applied.

Nowadays, Cannabis is still scheduled as a substance liable to abuse and highly addictive, with particularly dangerous properties and little or no therapeutic values (Schedules I and IV of the 1961 Single Convention), just as heroin. Despite the discovery of THC in the 1960’s, despite the discovery of the endocannabinoid system in the 1990’s, despite the growing number of diseases for which Cannabis is scientifically proven to have an useful therapeutic effect, Cannabis has not had any critical review since the year 1935 ! Yet in 1965, the ECDD (Expert Committee on Drug Dependance) made a pre-review that did not lead to any result, and in 1991, the ECDD recommended the descheduling of THC from the list of most harmful substances.

CCR_A1

Today, the whole plant has to be descheduled from the tables I and IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the very international lock against any Cannabis policy reform at national level. But this have to be assessed by a Critical review by the ECDD, 81 years after the previous one. Many civil society organizations have been working on this issue for years, and today, the United Nations General Assembly, in the recent Special Session on the world drug problem (UNGASS 2016) recognizes the need of a renewed, balanced and scientific evidence-based approach towards the international scheduling system, by reaffirming the treaty-mandated role of WHO, but also resolving to “[support] scientific evidence-based review and scheduling of the most prevalent, persistent and harmful substances” as well as calling for “informed and coordinated scheduling decisions”.

The World Health Assembly (WHA) is the place and moment where most of the decisions concerning the ECDD are made. This year’s 69th WHA will take place from 23rd to 28th of May, in Geneva’s Palais des Nations, and includes an agenda item on the public health approach of drug policies, in the context of UNGASS.

It is time to advocate for a concrete change of paradigm in the international drug control system, towards  an evidence-based approach to policies, starting with the long overdue Critical review of the most used and one of the less harmful substances : Cannabis.

Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD)

Photo credit : IDPC

Photo credit : IDPC

The ECDD is a body of experts responsible for conducting the medical and scientific evaluation of dependence-producing substances, and for making recommendations concerning the level of international control to be applied to the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the international legislative organ on narcotic drugs. In theory, no psychoactive substance can be scheduled internationally without first being evaluated by this expert committee of the WHO.

We can emphasize that the evaluation of substances by this committee is one of the few tasks of WHO, if not the only one, based on international treaties. It is a mandatory task.

The name of the committee is set since 1969, but before that, the committee has existed under various names :

  • 1969: Expert Committee on Drug Dependence.
  • 1966: Expert Committee on Dependence-Producing Drugs.
  • 1964: Expert Committee on Addiction-Producing Drugs.
  • 1950: Expert Committee on Drugs Liable to Produce Addiction.
  • 1949: Expert Committee on Habit-Forming Drugs established.

Before that, an expert committee, associated to the International Office for Public Health, made substances reviews and scheduling recommendations for the consideration of the League of Nations. Cannabis was reviewed under this League of Nations expert committee in 1935.

The article « Modernizing methodology for the WHO assessment of substances for the international drug control conventions » by E. Danenberg, L.A. Sorge, W. Wieniawski, S. Elliott, L. Amato and W.K. Scholten, published in Drug and alcohol dependence 131 (2013) 175–181, says :

After the WHO Executive Board rejected proposals for Supplementary guidelines twice, the Secretariat developed a major revision of the guidelines in force, addressing the issues that the Supplementary guidelines were sup- posed to address, but also paying attention to transparency of the process and the use of the internet. With the adoption of the Guidelines for the WHO Review of Psychoactive Substances for International Control by the Executive Board, the procedures to fol- low by the ECDD for abuse liability assessment are clearly defined and it requires that the approach is evidence-based. The procedure is centered around matters of public health to consider if a substance should be placed in the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961 (Schedule I or II) or the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, 1971 (Schedule I, II, III or IV). Evaluation of a substance is undertaken by the ECDD and utilizes data provided by the WHO Secretariat. Overall, the review procedure considers a substance’s similarity to substances already in the 1961 or 1971 Conventions as well as a substance’s degree of therapeutic usefulness and impact on public health through its liability of abuse.

Since its first meeting 50 years ago, the ECDD has played a central role in the international drug control system. Its main task is to carry out medical and scientific evaluations of the abuse liability of dependence-producing drugs falling within the terms of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances. It then makes recommendations to the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs on the control measures, if any, that it considers appropriate. The Expert Committee’s reports are published by WHO in its Technical Report Series.

FLOW CHART OF THE EVALUATION PROCEDURE

WHO review of psychoactive substances for international control

Pre-review

PRER

Critical-review

CRITICALR

Source : « Guidance on the WHO review of psychoactive substances for international control« , WHO, 2010.

In their Series of Legislative Reform of Drug Policies #25, the Trans-National Institute and the International Drug Policy Consortium provide an interesting condensed schema of the schedules of the 1961 and 1971 conventions :

sc1961

sc1971

Source : « Scheduling in the international drug control system« , TNI & IDPC, 2014.

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The team :
Farid Ghehiouèche

Farid Ghehiouèche

Chanvre & Libertés-NORML France

  • Former head of national commission on drugs at French green Party (from 1998 to 2008) ;
  • Former chairperson of ENCOD (the european coalition for just and effective drug policies) with which he helped conceptualize the Cannabis Social Club concept ;
  • Main organizer of Million Marijuana March since 2001 in Paris ;
  • Founder of the association Cannabis Sans Frontières and candidate to several elections in France (european parliament in 2009 and 2014, legislative elections in 2012, regional in 2015) ;
  • Board member of Chanvre & Libertés-NORML France since 2014 ;
  • Central person in the public and mediatic debate concerning cannabis policy reform in France ;
  • Activist for more than a decade in Vienna on international drug policies, with a special approach on the topic of narcotic drugs classification, and now works there as #ProCannabisTeam ;
  • Head of advocacy and relations in the think-tank FAAAT
Michael Krawitz

Michael Krawitz

Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access

  • Disabled US Air Force Veteran. Sergeant from 1981 to 1986, injured in Guam in an accident that was deemed “in the line of duty” although not combat related ;
  • In 2010 his long fight inside the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for adequate access to pain management paid off with his negotiating the first ever medical cannabis policy within the VA ;
  • Since 1995, Michael is deeply engaged towards international drug control systems, and attended the 1998 UNGASS on “the world drug problem”. Finding that there was little NGO participation, he has focused much of his work on increasing the involvement of civil society in the UN drug control system ;
  • He carried important contributions to the Beyond 2008 consultative process as well as the New York NGO Committee on Drugs ;
  • Nowadays, he is member of the executive council of the New York NGO Committee on Drugs, board member of the International Alliance For Cannabis as Medicine and Director of Veterans For Medical Cannabis Access.
Kenzi Riboulet Zemouli

Kenzi Riboulet Zemouli

FAAAT think & do tank

  • Former activist in the region of Toulouse (south of France), engaged with the health and social stakeholders of the area, he has organized events and conferences on cannabis and harm reduction, displayed information in Toulouse with a local collective and took part in the redaction of municipal proposals on cannabis issues;
  • Co-founder of the first French Cannabis social clubs initiative in 2012;
  • Co-founder of Chanvre & Libertés-NORML France, and former board member (2011-2016), he helped developing public relations in a view of policy reform, working in parallel on several ways to implement Cannabis social clubs in France;
  • He has been working along with the European coalition for just and effective drug policies (Encod) on the international drug control system reform issues, nowaadays continues this work within FAAAT;
  • Former correspondent for France and Spain for Leafly news;
  • Living in Barcelona since 2015, he is now involved in the spanish drug policy reform movements. He has a special focus on bottum-up actions and programs impulsed by the health and social sectors and affected populations.