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HIGHLIGHTS
  1. No decision from the Expert Committee on Drug Dependence on whether to recommend rescheduling cannabis
  2. Could push Commission on Narcotic Drugs vote back from March 2019 to March 2020
  3. WHO recommendations carry no legal clout, but can be a political tool  

A much-anticipated decision from the World Health Organization on whether or not to recommend rescheduling cannabis in international drug law has been delayed.

The WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence met last month to review the scientific literature on the potential harms and/or medical benefits of cannabis. The committee was widely expected to deliver its findings on Friday to a meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), the United Nations body that decides how drugs are scheduled under international treaties.

No discussion of cannabis happened, however, with the expert committee citing a lack of clearance on the issue, according to Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst for the U.K.-based Transform Drug Policy Foundation.

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"It may have been that there was a decision that there was still more technical work to do. I think probably it's more likely that there was some kind of behind-the-scenes political pressure," Mr. Rolles said.

Recommendations from the WHO’s drug experts have no legal clout. But they do frame debates that take place every March at the CND’s annual meeting in Vienna.

"My assumption is that the [expert committee’s] announcement will happen between now and March and the vote [on whether to reschedule cannabis] would still happen in March," Mr. Rolles said.

It’s possible, however, that Friday’s delay means the issue won’t come before the CND until March 2020, Mr. Rolles added.

"March is going to be quite messy for a lot of reasons; it's the review of the [CND’s]10-year strategy, and in theory the creation and launch of a new 10-year strategy. But there's lots of tensions boiling away between the more traditional prohibitionist countries and some of the harm reduction reform-oriented countries, including Canada," he said.

Even if the expert committee does recommend rescheduling cannabis, it’s far from certain that a majority of the CND’s 53 member states will vote to do so. Several powerful countries, such as Russia and China, remain opposed to international cannabis reform, and the CND votes have more to do with geopolitics than scientific evidence, Mr. Rolles said.

That said, a recommendation from the WHO to reschedule cannabis would still be important, even if it’s not acted on.

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"Countries that are seeking to reform [drug laws]... can produce that in parliament and say, 'look the WHO Expert Committee has said this,” Mr. Rolles said.

The expert committee has already recommended that cannabidiol be descheduled, having found no evidence for potential CBD abuse or dependence. The CND is expected to vote on this in March.

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