A United Nations commission voted on Wednesday to remove cannabis for medical use from a category of the world’s most dangerous drugs, such as heroin, a highly anticipated and long-delayed decision that could clear the way for marijuana research and medical use.
The vote by the Commission for Narcotic Drugs, which 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 currently sits, alongside dangerous and highly addictive opioids like heroin.
Experts say the approval of the recommendation will have no immediate implications for loosening international controls, and governments will still have jurisdiction on how to classify cannabis. But many countries look to international 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guidance, and U.N. recognition is a symbolic win for advocates of drug policy change who say that international law is out of date.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 world has changed since the early 1960s,” said Alfredo Pascual, a journalist for Marijuana Business Daily, a news resource for the industry. He said the current scheduling of cannabis was a deterrent to research and that a change in the United Nations classification would most likely bolster legalization efforts around the world.
“We will have the U.N., the main drug policy body, recognizing the medical usefulness of cannabis,” he said ahead of the vote.
Still, the decision is highly contentious in many countries, which has led to unusual delays in voting on the recommendations first made by the World Health Organization in 2019. The United States, European nations and others were in favor of the proposal, while China, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan and Russia strongly opposed.
“It’s been a diplomatic circus,” said Kenzi Riboulet-Zemouli, an independent drug policy researcher who has closely monitored the vote and the position of member states. Some countries that were initially opposed to the downgrading, like France, have since changed their position, he added.
But a recommendation to add cannabis derivatives such as dronabinol and THC to Schedule I, the lower lever, did not garner enough support to pass.
“Continuing down this path not only denies our citizens important medicinal products that relieve suffering but also represents a betrayal of the public trust,” said Michael Krawitz, executive director for Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, adding that the drug was an important medication that could provide unique pain relief.
The overhaul of cannabis policy, particularly around legalization for medical use, has moved at a rapid pace over the last few years, said Jessica Steinberg, managing director at the Global C, an international cannabis consulting group, who has attended U.N. meetings. Industry insiders are hoping the vote will open the field for research into the therapeutic benefits of the drug.
But the impact on the American and European markets is driving the focus, she added. In the United States, where more states legalized the use of medical and recreational marijuana in the recent election, the market is expected to expand to more than $34 billion by 2025, according to Cowen, an investment and financial services company.
Before the vote this week and other decriminalization efforts, share prices of some cannabis companies jumped.
But aside from the financial boon it could provide for American and European marijuana markets, downgrading the dangers of cannabis may have the biggest impact on countries that have more conservative policies, such as many Caribbean and Asian nations.
“Something like this does not mean that legalization is just going to happen around the world,” Ms. Steinberg said. But “it could be a watershed moment.”