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Explained: The implications as UN removes cannabis from its ‘most dangerous drug’ category

Currently in India, the NDPS Act, 1985, illegalises any mixture with or without any neutral material, of any of the two forms of cannabis – charas and ganja — or any drink prepared from it.

A cannabis plant in growth in California. (Bloomberg Photo: Patrick T. Fallon)

In a decision that could influence the global use of medicinal marijuana, the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) on Wednesday voted to remove cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, decades after they were first placed on the list.

At its ongoing 63rd session, the 53-member CND has chosen to affirm a World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendation from 2019 to remove cannabis from its ‘most dangerous’ category, with 27 Member States voting in favour, 25 against, and one abstention.

India was part of the voting majority, along with the US and most European nations. China, Pakistan and Russia were among those who voted against, and Ukraine abstained.

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Currently in India, the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 1985, illegalises any mixture with or without any neutral material, of any of the two forms of cannabis – charas and ganja — or any drink prepared from it.

READ: Cannabis in India: A rather long story, with its highs and lows

The cannabis plant

According to the WHO, cannabis is a generic term used to denote the several psychoactive preparations of the plant Cannabis sativa. The major psychoactive constituent in cannabis is Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The Mexican name ‘marijuana‘ is frequently used in referring to cannabis leaves or other crude plant material in many countries.

Most species of cannabis are dioecious plants that can be identified as either male or female. The unpollinated female plants are called hashish. Cannabis oil (hashish oil) is a concentrate of cannabinoids — compounds which are structurally similar to THC — obtained by solvent extraction of the crude plant material or of the resin.

The WHO says that cannabis is by far the most widely cultivated, trafficked and abused illicit drug in the world. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram

Under international law

The Vienna-based CND, founded in 1946, is the UN agency mandated to decide on the scope of control of substances by placing them in the schedules of global drug control conventions. Cannabis has been on Schedule IV–the most dangerous category– of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs for as long as the international treaty has existed.

Since it was first scheduled, however, global attitudes towards cannabis have changed dramatically, with many jurisdictions permitting cannabis use for recreation, medication or both, despite it remaining on Schedule IV of the UN list. Currently, over 50 countries allow medicinal cannabis programs, and its recreational use has been legalised in Canada, Uruguay and 15 US states, as per UN News.

READ: Three crore Indians use cannabis; ganja in Northeast, bhang elsewhere

The CND vote

In January 2019, the WHO made six recommendations related to scheduling of cannabis in UN treaties. The proposals were to be placed before the CND’s session in March that year, but members overwhelmingly voted to postpone the vote, requesting additional time.

Then, at its currently ongoing session, the CND rejected five of the six proposals, but approved the key one to remove cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV. However, both substances will continue to remain on Schedule I, the least dangerous category.

The proposals CND rejected on Wednesday included removing extracts and tinctures of cannabis from Schedule I and adding certain preparations of dronabinol to Schedule III of the 1961 Convention.

What this could mean for the cannabis industry

The reclassification of cannabis by the UN agency, although significant, would not immediately change its status worldwide as long as individual countries continue with existing regulations. Still, Wednesday’s vote could impact this process, as many nations follow the lead of international protocols while legislating.

As per drug policy experts, the CND decision would add momentum to efforts for decriminalising cannabis in countries where its use is most restricted, while further legalising the substance in others. Scientific research into marijuana’s medicinal properties is also expected to grow.

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