An evolving debate
In what is being called a major watershed moment for legalisation efforts worldwide, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs reclassified cannabis to no longer be a part of Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. This particular international treaty previously listed cannabis in the same category as opioids and heroin. The 53 member states of the commission voted to remove cannabis from the category it was placed in for the last 59 years with a vote count of 27 in favour, 25 against and one abstention. This vote follows recommendations made in 2019 by the WHO for scheduling of Cannabis in drug control treaties. The proposals were set to be voted on in the 2019 session of the CND but were ultimately delayed as many nations requested more time to define their position and consider their options.
Ultimately, what this means is that cannabis and cannabis resin will now be reclassified to restrictions under the Schedule I category with the recognition that it has medical benefits. Previously, the restrictive classification of cannabis meant that research and investment into its medical and therapeutic uses were minimal and strained. Of course, it must be noted that the vote and its significance is largely symbolic as actual narcotics control and reclassification falls to individual countries. But as cannabis industry experts and activists explained, this vote gives weight to arguments for the legalisation of the substance and setup of a consistent regulatory framework.
Naturally, the move had its opponents. Nations such as Japan and Russia commented upon the easy potential for the abuse of cannabis in its recreational capacity, with Russia referring to cannabis as the "most abused drug globally". While there were some disagreements over the risk and upsides of cannabis use, the UN generally agrees with the position that not only is cannabis not liable to produce the same 'ill-effects' as other Schedule IV substances, it also has "limited but robust" research that highlight that therapeutic and medical uses of cannabis. CBD or cannabidiol is a non-intoxicating compound found in cannabis which is generally not subject to international control and has already sparked a billion-dollar industry based around its use in wellness therapies.
Beyond promoting the use of cannabis for medical and therapeutic purposes, it is difficult to see this ruling having any real effect on the larger debate of cannabis legalisation, particularly for recreational use. As experts have noted, it is difficult to conclusively weigh-in on whether the benefits and harms of larger legalisation efforts of cannabis across the world. Marijuana legalisation may indeed create jobs and bring tax revenue but it is difficult to weigh these benefits against the potential downsides of societal costs of its use. Similarly, conflicting research on its societal effects of legitimisation has shown that it could increase illegitimate teen use or reduce it, benefit the black market or phase it out, create a wave of addiction or conversely help regulate it. Either way, such confusion goes to show that we are far from conclusively deciding our relationship with cannabis, although, the international stigma that surrounded its use 60 years ago when many of the international treaties into narcotics were coming into shape, has gradually receded.
It must be noted here that India was one of the 27 nations that voted in favour of reclassifying cannabis. In India, the production, sale, purchase, possession, transport and use of cannabis is still a punishable offence under the NDPS Act of 1985. Through prominent politicians and personalities like Shashi Tharoor have argued for legalisation supported by a proper framework, medical cannabis dispensaries in India still remain a highly unlikely outcome. This, however, has not stopped India's ayurvedic industries from trying to find ways of using cannabis for its medicinal properties. Local companies such as HempStreet and HempCann Solutions are using cannabis oils and extracts as part of their medicine for everything from inflammation to anxiety. Now this new ruling by the CND could serve to further propel this burgeoning industry in India.