At the end of May, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the World Health Organization (WHO). The announcement came on the heels of a Trump threat to permanently cut off all U.S. funding for the organization (the U.S. is the largest individual national contributor) because of a supposedly “China-centric influence.”

But beyond squabbles about politics or supposed “foreign” influence, what will this decision have, if any, on the international or domestic cannabis industry?

A Brief History of The WHO and Cannabis

In a nutshell, the WHO is the health arm of the United Nations (UN). It is by definition, an intergovernmental organization created in the aftermath of WWII in 1948 to foster international responses to global health threats. The WHO has, as its primary function, a global coordinating role in developing international public health policy and coordinating global responses to epidemics and pandemics, as well as other diseases. Their responses to diseases, beyond the current crisis, include those for SARS and ebola, as well as smallpox, polio, and measles.

The WHO, named in the three global narcotics control treaties that are now up to sixty years old next year, also has the authority to make scheduling determinations. And that currently is where the friction, if not the debate, lies when it comes to cannabis.

The WHO And Cannabis Reform

Despite expanding reform on a country-by-country basis over the last five years, the WHO has not budged on considering reclassification, although the entity has considered the question for the last three years. Indeed, the WHO recommended that cannabis be rescheduled in 2019, but delayed the vote yet again in early March 2020, about a week before declaring COVID-19 a global pandemic. The decision about the reclassification of the plant as well as the cannabinoids within it, is expected to happen this December. The outcome is widely expected to change THC at least to a legitimate (Schedule II) drug and potentially deschedule hemp. 

This has become even more of a turgid question especially as there is now evidence that cannabinoids may be part of creating a vaccine for COVID 19. 

But why does this matter at all in an era of national sovereign reform that includes countries like Canada, Uruguay, and it is expected by 2022, countries stretching from Luxembourg to New Zealand?

As discussed in the February 2020 report of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), an independent body responsible for monitoring the control of narcotics pursuant to the three UN drug control conventions, “legalization measures or regulations that permit the non-medical use of any controlled substance, including cannabis, are in contravention of the legal obligations incumbent upon States parties to that Convention. The Board calls upon all States to respect their international legal obligations in the elaboration of their national drug control policies.”

In a nutshell, in other words, sovereign reform initiatives (as well as U.S. state recreational law) are currently in direct contravention of international treaties and current WHO policy. This complicates everything on a sovereign state level, from further reform to drug interdiction, drug street arrests, banking issues in multiple directions and of course, the ultimate goal: full and total reform, including recreational use.

In the United States, federal officials have repeatedly cited domestic classification of the plant (which flows from international regulation of cannabis) as the major reason for the lack of progress on medical and public health research. And that means that from a public policy perspective at least, American federal law to date has been based on WHO decisions. Namely, it is very important in moving at least the medical question forward.

But they are not the only ones.

The Story So Far

In Europe, regional authorities are also concerned about moving in step with the WHO when it comes to setting national policy, although even here, on the cannabis front, reform has been led by European states, not an external regional or even international policy. For example, Holland has operated its nebulous, grey area market for decades outside of international law—and indeed outside of even EU regulations. 

Medical reform across Europe, kicked off by Germany in 2017 with the legislative change to cover cannabis under public health insurance was also prompted by domestic jurisprudence (patients sued the government). Even on the CBD (and other cannabinoid) front, regional and national state law is leading reform. 

Luxembourg certainly, has not cited WHO policy in setting its recreational timeline or agenda. Neither has New Zealand. They are asking voters.

North America, in particular, also appears to be going its own way with regards to cannabis. Certainly Canada moved first into medical use and then recreational reform without consulting international treaties but rather domestic jurisprudence (court cases and then national policy setting) without much concern for WHO policy. The same is true of American states.

Other countries such as Uruguay and potentially New Zealand this fall have also moved forward, despite all the hurdles, which also include banking regulations as well as access itself.

So what does all of this mean?

The UN Will Follow, Not Lead

Certainly, the time has come to change global conventions on cannabis. The widely expected WHO reclassification of the drug by the end of 2020 will certainly begin to change the medical discussion globally. It may well also influence the tedious debates in Europe over classification of CBD as a so-called “Novel Food,” which is where the debate has landed as of 2019.

How a change in classification at the WHO on the medical front, however, will impact recreational use is unclear. Even if THC is reclassified as a Schedule II narcotic, this leaves the entire recreational question in a very strange space, with many unanswered questions. Rec users in less than-forward-thinking jurisdictions can still be prosecuted for “misuse” of a narcotic.

The bottom line is that no matter what Trump does, the discussion proceeds internationally. What it will probably mean however, is that there will be no coordination on an international level in distributing a cannabinoid-based COVID-19 response in the United States. Not to mention a final discussion about full and final federal reform in the United States for many more years.

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