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The spelling of “Marihuana” with an “h” is significant. The plant was traditionally referred to as cannabis, as set forth in the Single Convention. But “marijuana” or “marihuana” were colloquial terms borrowed from Mexican Spanish, as described by the Brookings Institution in Marijuana: A Short History. They carry racist undertones well documented from the early days of Henry Anslinger’s campaign to prohibit cannabis in the United States. Under the CSA, “Marihuana” is a Schedule I drug “with no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” — similar to the Single Convention.

In 2020, the CND again delayed a decision. Absent further delays or postponements, this December will bring the day of reckoning. Will the WHO’s recommendations finally take effect?

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The U.N. created the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) to monitor and amend the designations assigned to substances, which is where the WHO comes in. It’s required by international law to research medical and scientific benefits and risks associated with substances such as cannabis. In turn, the CND implements the WHO’s recommendations when making scheduling decisions regarding a plant or substance. So how significant was the WHO’s recent recommendations on cannabis to the CND?

While these policy considerations by global agencies bode well for cannabis reform, they’ll take years to implement. And that may lead to tightened controls and additional levels of regulation – perhaps not the outcome activists and lobbyists had envisioned for international cannabis policy reform.

In December 2018, I attended the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna thanks to the organizing efforts of For Alternative Approaches to Addiction, Think & do tank (FAAAT). While at that time major cannabis reform commitments were expected, no policy changes came to fruition and the international trade of CBD remains hindered by the lack of action.

Cannabidiol is one of several (probably 200) compounds of the cannabis plant.

Not scheduling a substance means that it is not subject to strict international controls, including for production and supply. Its legal status in countries is something for national legislators to decide. Some countries have eased regulations around cannabidiol, to consider products containing CBD to be medical products. These include Australia, Canada, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.

At its November 2017 meeting, the WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) concluded that, in its pure state, cannabidiol does not appear to have abuse potential or cause harm. As such, as CBD is not currently a scheduled substance in its own right (only as a component of cannabis extracts), current information does not justify a change in this scheduling position and does not justify scheduling of the substance.

WHO does not recommend cannabidiol for medical use. Initial evidence from animal and human studies (i.e. a controlled study in the New England Journal of Medicine and other reported individual cases) shows that its use could have some therapeutic value for seizures due to epilepsy and related conditions.

However, where CBD is produced for pharmaceutical purposes as an extract of cannabis, cannabis extracts and tinctures are included in the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. A fuller review of extracts or preparations containing almost exclusively CBD will take place in June 2018, when the WHO expert committee will undertake a comprehensive review of cannabis and cannabis related substances.

Perhaps this time around the FDA will listen, and learn something.

As the cannabis reform nonprofit NORML reported, the WHO is currently considering changing CBD’s place in its own drug scheduling code. In September, NORML submitted written testimony to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) opposing the enactment of international restrictions on access to CBD.

According to a preliminary WHO report published last month, naturally occurring CBD is safe and well tolerated in humans (and animals), and is not associated with any negative public health effects [PDF].

In acknowledgement of these kinds of discoveries in recent years, the report continued, ” Several countries have modified their national controls to accommodate CBD as a medicinal product.”

The authors pointed out that research has officially confirmed some positive effects of the chemical, however.

The WHO team determined that CBD has “been demonstrated as an effective treatment for epilepsy” in adults, children, and even animals, and that there’s “preliminary evidence” that CBD could be useful in treating Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, psychosis, Parkinson’s disease, and other serious conditions.

While CBD itself is safe and found to be helpful for many users, industry experts have warned that not all cannabis extracts are created equally, purely, or with the same methods of extraction.