Health

U.N. reclassifies cannabis as a less dangerous drug

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.

Marijuana plantation
Tending crops at a marijuana plantation in North Macedonia. Loulou d'Aki/The New York Times

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A United Nations commission voted 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guidance, and U.N. recognition is a symbolic win for advocates of drug policy change who say that international law is out of date.

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.

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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 reclassification passed 27-25, 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 U.N. move, the country would strictly control cannabis “to protect from the harm and abuse.”

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.”

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