In March 2020 the United Nations might terminate half-Century of Treaty ban on Cannabis medicines. The process that started in 2016 will finish with a vote planned in March 2020. The list of the 53 countries that will take part in this historic votation has been made public today, and provides some surprises.
WHO has been undergoing a silent but powerful process among the last couple of years: an unprecedented scientific assessment of Cannabis, cannabinoids and Cannabis derivatives. Their results are groundbreaking, establish some truth about the often exaggerated harms linked to Cannabis use, and call for fully health-oriented public policies on the matter.
Beside assessing the drug and updating knowledge, the WHO’s review outcome embeds in the broader United Nations drug control system: the evidence-based recommendations of the WHO also constitute the (only) official mechanism to modify the scheduling of a drug within the drug control Treaties – these famous Treaty Schedules, often blamed for being a tight node of global prohibition (in particular the Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic drugs, in which is placed Cannabis).
However, WHO’s honest and positive recommendations do not enter into force by themselves: they have to be endorsed by the United Nations. This happens via a vote undertaken by the UN functional commission in charge of drug-related matters, composed of 53 countries: the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND). The
CND is expected to vote during its 63 rd session in March 2020, under an agenda item entitled “Changes in the scope of control of substances”.
Because part of the CND member countries will be renewed in January 1st 2020, yesterday, United Nations chose the new Membership of the CND, providing for the (almost) final list of the Countries who will be entitled to take part in the historic vote on Cannabis rescheduling:
- 20 countries are already Members with a term running until December 2021 (Afghanistan, Algeria, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, Croatia, Cuba, Czech Republic, France, India, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Switzerland and Togo)
- 31 countries were elected by the ECOSOC yesterday (Austria, Angola, Ecuador, El Salvador, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Jamaica, Kenya, Libya, Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, Peru, Poland, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, USA and Uruguay, while Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Japan, Bahrain, Nepal, Turkmenistan, China and Thailand were elected in secret ballot)
- And finally, the election of the 2 remaining Members from the African Group was postponed by the Council – and expected before summer.
The allocation of seats is based on Regional groups – a crucial elements of the United Nations system:
Arrangements and agreements are ordinarily made between countries within these groups first before being discussed with all countries. This also applies to establish the voting positions at the CND: among the 53 Members, 11 come from the African Group (AG), 11 from the Asia-Pacific Group (APG), 14 from the Western European and other States Group (WEOG), 6 from Eastern European States (EEG) and 10 from the Group of Latin American and Caribbean States (GRULAC). The 53 rd seat alternates between APG and GRULAC: for the next 4-years term, the APG has 12 seats.
Additionally to Regional Groups, European Union countries have agreed on an imperative mandate (they all agree previously to vote the same way) superseding the discussions held within regional groups. This might have some impact as EU Member States are present in both WEOG and EEG groups (highlighted in red in the figures below).
Regarding the motivations of the vote, the 1961 Convention explains that “assessments [from the WHO] shall be determinative as to medical and scientific matters” but immediately backtracks adding that decisions must be taken “bearing in mind the economic, social, legal, administrative and other factors it may consider relevant” [see Article 2 (5) and (6)], opening a grey area for the CND. There is no precedent of rejection of a WHO recommendation by the CND – however, there is one precedents of the CND deciding not to vote on a recommendation: this happened was in 2014, when “the Commission on Narcotic Drugs decided by consensus […] Not to vote on the recommendation of the World Health Organization to transfer dronabinol and its stereoisomers from Schedule II to Schedule III of the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971” [See Crimson Digest 1, Crimson Digest 2].
It is interesting to note the increased presence of countries with longstanding (and well known) traditions relating to Cannabis: Jamaica, Morocco, Nepal enter the CND. Angola, Ukraine and Kazakhstan are also important areas of rich endemic genetic diversity of Cannabis plants, although less publicized.
Countries that lead the international discussion on Cannabis policies and their need of evidence-based reforms (such as Uruguay, Mexico, the Netherlands, Thailand or South Africa), whose positions were challenged, managed to maintain their seats.
Europe also is in the focus. Although at this stage, it is not sure the United Kingdom (which just got elected at the CND after failing election two years ago) will be part of the European Union or not in March 2020, in any case, EU countries increase their presence in the Commission, from 11 in 2019 to at least 12 (or 13 if UK remains in the EU) in 2020.