Here’s all you need to know about the WHO’s recommendations to reschedule cannabis and cannabis-related substances.

(Last updated: 18 December 2020)


Following its first-ever critical review of cannabis, in January 2019 the World Health Organization's Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) issued a collection of formal recommendations to reschedule cannabis and cannabis-related substances. 53 member states of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) are set to vote on these recommendations in December 2020.

Eagerly awaited, the ECDD recommendations contain some clearly positive points, such as acknowledging the medicinal usefulness of cannabis by removing it from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs; clarifying that cannabidiol (CBD) is not under international control; and addressing some long-standing scheduling inconsistencies.   But the ECDD recommendations also reveal problematic underlying evaluation methods and scheduling procedures along with a very questionable rationale for keeping cannabis in Schedule I. Moreover, the recommendations leave many questions unanswered regarding levels of control for different types of medical cannabis preparations. The potential repercussions of those more questionable aspects of the ECDD recommendations trigger legitimate concerns that merit a close examination by governments and by civil society.  

Below is a list of key materials (co-)published by TNI on this subject:(December 2020) 

Press release - UN green lights medicinal cannabis but fails to challenge colonial legacy of its prohibition (December 2020)

In a historic vote, the United Nations (UN) has finally recognised the medicinal value of cannabis. TNI and other civil society partners welcomed the move, but also expressed disappointment that this reform does not go far enough, as cannabis remains categorised internationally alongside drugs like heroin and cocaine. Find the press release and video statements here.

Statement — Potential fall-out from the vote on the WHO cannabis recommendations (November 2020)

The WHO has now given an unequivocal sign of support for medical cannabis programmes. A rejection by vote does not invalidate the assessment that there is sufficient scientific evidence to prove that cannabis is an effective medicine (at least for a number of medical conditions). That conclusion reached by the WHO experts stands no matter how the political vote turns out in the CND. Learn more from this statement by Martin Jelsma.

Policy briefing — The WHO’s First-Ever Critical Review of Cannabis (March 2019)

Published two months after the ECDD released its recommendations concerning the status of cannabis and cannabis-related substances, this policy briefing outlines the history of WHO-led cannabis review, and the main implications of the ECDD’s recommendations issued in 2019. Read the briefing here.  

Statements — Key points to raise about the WHO cannabis recommendations (June and August 2020)

In March 2020, the CND decided to postpone the vote on all WHO cannabis-related recommendations to the reconvened session in December 2020. In these two statements (June and August 2020), Martin Jelsma presents several key points for governments and civil society to raise leading up to the vote in December, covering detailed arguments around the ECDD’s scientific assessment, pharmaceutical preparations and traditional medicine, and matters relating to potentially regressive voting outcomes.  

Advocacy note — Cannabis rescheduling: What could it mean for Africa and the Caribbean? (June-August 2020)

Cannabis cultivation serves as a source of livelihood for millions of people globally, from Morocco to Jamaica

Dania Putri and Martin Jelsma

Cannabis cultivation serves as a source of livelihood for millions of people globally, from Morocco to Jamaica

Rescheduling cannabis at the UN level presents an opportunity for governments and civil society to further decolonise drug control approaches, while strengthening the international legal basis for emerging medicinal cannabis programmes. Nonetheless, certain recommendations should be approached with caution, for example in relation with the explicit underlining of pharmaceutical products like Sativex and Marinol – which may pose challenges for countries with a long history of therapeutic use of cannabis preparations which are more herbal and traditional in nature. Learn more from these two briefings, available here (Africa) and here (Caribbean), published in collaboration with the International Drug Policy Consortium and the Interdisciplinary Centre on Cannabis Research.  

Advocacy note — Cannabis rescheduling: A global introduction (October 2020)

What would rescheduling cannabis at the UN level mean at the country level, especially considering the varying origins and transformation of cannabis-related policies in different parts of the world? Adapted from the aforementioned advocacy notes on Africa and the Caribbean, this publication, created in collaboration with the International Drug Policy Consortium, provides a global overview of the potential implications of the WHO's recommendations, concluded with a set of substantive and process asks for governments. Read it here (available in English and Spanish).  

Commentary - Conditionalities of the WHO cannabis recommendations (January 2020)

The CND secretariat has “for ease of reference only” presented a decision tree depicting certain conditionalities of the WHO's recommendations, particularly related to the recommendations to transfer tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and dronabinol (delta-9-THC) from Schedules I and II of the 1971 Convention to Schedule I of the 1961 Convention. Learn more about these conditionalities from this short commentary by Martin Jelsma.    

Other relevant publications:

Advocacy note — Closing Doors: The exclusion of civil society at the ’topical meetings’ of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (July 2020, International Drug Policy Consortium)

Members of civil society have been excluded from the meetings leading to one of the most politically controversial and consequential votes at the CND in the last years, namely the deliberations around the Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) of the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations on rescheduling cannabis. Learn more here.  

WebpageCND's special page on WHO scheduling recommendations on cannabis and cannabis-related substances

To follow related updates from the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), check out this page.

Webpage - WHO's page on the 41st meeting of the Expert Committee on Drug Dependence

The forty-first meeting of the Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) was held in Geneva, Switzerland, 12-16 November 2018. Find all the relevant documents here.

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