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4 December 2020

UN removes cannabis from the highest risk drug category

The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) voted on December 2, 2020, by a short majority of 27 (including France) out of 53 members, to remove cannabis from Schedule IV of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961.

Schedule IV of the Single Convention is the schedule containing the narcotic drugs that are considered to have particularly dangerous properties compared to other substances. Heroin, for example, is included in this schedule, whose notoriously dangerous effects are not disputed. The consequence of this vote is not to remove cannabis from the category of narcotic substances but to downgrade it to a sub-category of substances less dangerous than those listed in Schedule IV.

This decision is the fruit of the reflections and studies carried out around the world on the therapeutic potential of cannabis and follows the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) of 24 January 2019 in which it expresses its willingness to remove cannabis and its derivatives from Schedule IV of the Single Convention for the same reasons. The WHO is based on the outcome of a review process conducted by the Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD), an independent scientific advisory body to the WHO.

This decision of the CND is part of the movement advocating the medicinal and therapeutic virtues of cannabis and could thus its official use as a therapeutic base. Indeed, like codeine, opium or morphine, cannabis-based medicines could be marketed and used without this process being condemned by the UN.

This vote echoes the decision of the CJEU of November 19, 2020, analyzed in our article of November 23, which found that France’s restrictive position on products from the CDB is contrary to European law. Insofar as the Advocate General had already this summer delivered conclusions condemning France’s restrictive position, one might wonder about the effect of this decision on the UN’s vote, especially since France voted in favor of a removal from Schedule IV. Without speculating on the answer, we will notice a favorable alignment of planets for the cannabis industry.

France’s positive vote in favor of removing cannabis from Schedule IV should certainly be seen as an encouraging indicator towards a softening of its positions on cannabis that would reassure CBD industry stakeholders who are watching the reactions of the French authorities on the subject.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that the vote was very close (27 for, 25 against and 1 abstention). The European countries (with the exception of Ukraine which abstained) along with the United States and Canada were among those who voted in favor of the withdrawal. While Russia, China, Japan, Chile and Algeria opposed it. The status of cannabis therefore remains very polarizing but now seems to be on a path towards more flexibility.