3 December 2020
Medicinal cannabis advocates in New Zealand are celebrating an historic win at the United Nations.
Today state representatives at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) took the bold step of removing cannabis from Schedule IV of a 1961 treaty governing international control of drugs, six decades after its inclusion. The close decision passed 27 to 25 and recognises the therapeutic value of this century-old medicinal plant and no longer considering it as “particularly liable to abuse and to produce ill effects.”
The process began in 2009 and final decision based on the recommendation of an independent scientific assessment undertaken by some of the world’s leading experts, convened by the World Health Organisation in 2017-2018, where evidence and testimonials from all corners of the world were reviewed.
Manu Caddie is chair of the New Zealand Medical Cannabis Council, an industry association working to increase access to affordable quality medicinal cannabis, and attended the CND meeting in Vienna in December 2018.
“At that time we were expecting the WHO recommendations on cannabis reform but these were delayed until early last year and it is has taken this long to get to the vote – but the wait was worth it!” said Mr Caddie.
Cannabis was originally placed into Schedule IV of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs without having been subject to any scientific assessment. Schedule IV for cannabis is a relic of the most extreme international drug laws inherited from 1950s.
The WHO has the sole responsibility in the treaty to issue these recommendations, today’s vote by governments gathered at the UN was required to pass them into international law. The removal from Schedule IV is, therefore, great news for millions of patients around the world and a historical victory of science over politics. While cannabis remains in Schedule I and subject to strict controls in cross-border supply, it is now recognised internationally as having real therapeutic value.
“It was depressing to hear a number of states express disappointment in the vote and their intention to retain repressive enforcement measures relating to cannabis” said Mr Caddie. “Many of them use a range of violent tactics to suppress dissent domestically yet they express concern about the harm cannabis can cause. It is ridiculous they are not allowing science to guide public policy.”
In addition to the removal from Schedule IV, WHO unexpectedly proposed an ambitious plan to harmonise and embed flexibility into the treaty framework for the access and availability of cannabis medicines. WHO endeavoured to create space for governments to adjust their national policies to fit their needs.
Another recommendation on medicinal CBD did not receive approval, leaving the substance unscheduled, and theoretically outside of treaty controls.
These changes to international law will take effect after each government receives their official notification from the UN Secretary-General. In case a country contests the vote, it would only delay the entry into force of the decision to March 2021, which would only serve to reinforce the historic character of this set of decisions since the Single Convention was adopted in New-York 60 year earlier, to the day, on 30 March 1961.
“The decision does not have a significant effect on the new Medicinal Cannabis Scheme in New Zealand, but does provide optimism that change is possible at the international level, even if it takes a long time for small amounts of progress to be made” said Mr Caddie.
New Zealand is not currently a member of the CND but Mr Caddie said the New Zealand Government has recently been a strong advocate for science-based decisions on cannabis at the United Nations and along with former Prime Minister Helen Clark as head of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, he hopes New Zealand will play an increasing role in shaping international rules, policy frameworks and standards for cannabis and other drugs.
Mr Caddie is also optimistic that while the recommendation on CBD was rejected, New Zealand will soon make domestic policy changes to remove CBD from the schedule of Prescription Only medicines to increase access for patients via pharmacy supply.