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The World Health Organization’s top drug experts are meeting in Geneva this week to form a new scientific consensus about the potential harms and/or benefits of THC, cannabis extracts and synthetic cannabinoids.

Depending on their “critical review” of the scientific literature, the WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) may recommend the global rescheduling of cannabis – under the United Nation’s Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the Convention on Psychotropic Substances – from a Schedule I drug with no perceived medical benefit, to a Schedule II or III drug with some recognized medical uses.

Rescheduling cannabis at an international level would allow Canada "to export it and import it as they do now with opium and as they do now with all the controlled substances that go back and forth [across borders],” said Khalid Tinasti, executive secretary of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a drug reform advocacy group. Canada already exports medical cannabis, but only to a select group of countries that have legalized medical use, and through a labour-intensive process that requires Health Canada approval on a case-by-case basis.

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Any ECDD recommendations that emerge from this week’s meetings will not be binding. But they will be sent to the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, an international body made up of 53 countries that meets annually in Vienna to make decisions on scheduling and other drug-control measures. The Commission’s next meeting is in March, 2019, although it may not get around to discussing cannabis until March, 2020.

“We will have a real assessment of all the existing literature, and we'll know what science says,” Mr. Tinasti said of the meeting this week in Geneva. “Afterwards in March, we'll see what politics does with science.”

Earlier in the year, the ECDD recommended that pure cannabidiol be de-scheduled, having found no evidence for potential CBD abuse or dependence. The Commission on Narcotic Drugs is expected to discuss those recommendations in March as well.

The ECDDs’ review of CBD and THC comes amid widespread changes in the legal landscape, with Canada, Uruguay and numerous U.S. states legalizing adult recreational marijuana use and more than two dozen countries allowing some form of medical cannabis use. Changes at national levels have not, however, trickled up to the level of international treaties, which continue to reflect a long-standing prohibitionist approach to drugs. This creates an awkward situation for countries such as Canada that end up reneging on international obligations in order to reform domestic drug laws.

“In 2019 or 2020, with all the existing evidence, it will be very interesting to see how that political discussion will go [at the Commission meeting in Vienna], because they can no longer say, we don't know, we don't have enough evidence, which was the case for a very long time, because scientists had a very hard time assessing and building evidence [on cannabis]," Mr. Tinasti said.

That doesn't, in any way, mean that reform is inevitable, he added. The Commission generally requires consensus among its 53 members. And members do not need to listen to recommendations from the ECDD, regardless of scientific merit.

“You can have big countries like China or the Russian Federation, even the U.S. at the federal level, come in and say, 'OK, you say that there are these benefits, but to me socially this substance creates such big issues... it creates huge violence in the cities, so we don’t think it should be de-scheduled,” Mr. Tinasti said.

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“Obviously this is moving in some places, but a lot of other places are very much opposed to it," he added. “Africa is really out of this debate for now, but when you see Asia and Eastern Europe, those are big massive numbers [opposed to international cannabis reform]... The Europeans are still afraid, as usual, about how to move about it. So you have some Latin Americans, Canada, etc. really carrying the debate, and New Zealand now, because they have a referendum coming up on cannabis.”

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