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A U.S. State Department spokesperson told NPR that the vote in favor of reclassification “is not an endorsement of the use of the cannabis plant or cannabis resin for medical purposes,” adding that it won’t change marijuana’s status under the Controlled Substances Act or international conventions.

“Such liability is not offset by substantial therapeutic advantages,” the U.S. Justice Department says in its guide to complying with the treaties. With cannabis now classified differently, the calculus for studying its potential benefits is now likely to change.

He called the vote “an important step in cannabis becoming more accessible and certainly from today’s verdict, more acceptable.”

Clearing the way for research

That rejection came despite a plea from the European Medicinal Cannabis Association, which submitted a position paper to the commission titled, “CBD is not a narcotic.”

Glick cited the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval in 2018 of a purified cannabidiol extract for use in treating rare seizure disorders in children. And he cautioned that cannabis poses public health risks, particularly to young people and pregnant women.

Taking cannabis off of the list of most restricted substances, he added, means that the U.N. agrees with the WHO “that cannabis is not ‘liable to produce ill-effects’ on the scale of other drugs in Schedule IV, and that cannabis has significant potential therapeutic value.”

CBD is commonly used to address anxiety, and for patients who suffer through the misery of insomnia, studies suggest that CBD may help with both falling asleep and staying asleep.

Some CBD manufacturers have come under government scrutiny for wild, indefensible claims, such that CBD is a cure-all for cancer, which it is not. We need more research but CBD may be prove to be an option for managing anxiety, insomnia, and chronic pain. Without sufficient high-quality evidence in human studies we can’t pinpoint effective doses, and because CBD is currently is mostly available as an unregulated supplement, it’s difficult to know exactly what you are getting. If you decide to try CBD, talk with your doctor — if for no other reason than to make sure it won’t affect other medications you are taking.

CBD is readily obtainable in most parts of the United States, though its exact legal status is in flux. All 50 states have laws legalizing CBD with varying degrees of restriction, and while the federal government still considers CBD in the same class as marijuana, it doesn’t habitually enforce against it. In December 2015, the FDA eased the regulatory requirements to allow researchers to conduct CBD trials. Currently, many people obtain CBD online without a medical cannabis license. The government’s position on CBD is confusing, and depends in part on whether the CBD comes from hemp or marijuana. The legality of CBD is expected to change, as there is currently bipartisan consensus in Congress to make the hemp crop legal which would, for all intents and purposes, make CBD difficult to prohibit.

The evidence for cannabidiol health benefits

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CBD may offer an option for treating different types of chronic pain. A study from the European Journal of Pain showed, using an animal model, CBD applied on the skin could help lower pain and inflammation due to arthritis. Another study demonstrated the mechanism by which CBD inhibits inflammatory and neuropathic pain, two of the most difficult types of chronic pain to treat. More study in humans is needed in this area to substantiate the claims of CBD proponents about pain control.

CBD has been touted for a wide variety of health issues, but the strongest scientific evidence is for its effectiveness in treating some of the cruelest childhood epilepsy syndromes, such as Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS), which typically don’t respond to antiseizure medications. In numerous studies, CBD was able to reduce the number of seizures, and, in some cases, it was able to stop them altogether. Videos of the effects of CBD on these children and their seizures are readily available on the Internet for viewing, and they are quite striking. Recently the FDA approved the first ever cannabis-derived medicine for these conditions, Epidiolex, which contains CBD.

Cannabidiol (CBD) has been recently covered in the media, and you may have even seen it as an add-in booster to your post-workout smoothie or morning coffee. What exactly is CBD? Why is it suddenly so popular?

Not so fast. Even if the CND enacts the recommendations, the legality of cannabis won’t change. Further, it doesn’t remove global cannabis controls from the Single Convention. The complexities of implementing the recommendations present challenges on every front.

In early 2019, the WHO recommended the CND reschedule cannabis and that cannabis “resin be deleted from Schedule 4 of the Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs (1961),” (the most restrictive category, like the CSA’s Schedule I). In addition, the report recommended that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) be “deleted from the Convention on Psychotropic Substances (1971) and added to Schedule 1 of the Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs (1961).” Regarding CBD, the report recommended that cannabis extracts containing up to .2% THC not be scheduled within the drug control conventions. This signified a monumental change and the codifying of the medicinal value of cannabis. Further, it provided clarity around the international trade of CBD products.

When I examine the WHO recommendations closely, I think that most would have little impact on international drug controls and some could actually tighten requirements. Tremendous hurdles remain in signatory countries relating to technology or human resources to ensure compliance with some of the recommendations. The most obvious surround detecting specific THC content and/or the cannabinoid makeup of extracts from cannabis. The recommendations may require the creation of additional controls. In order to comply, the UN needs to set international standardized testing for THC and applicable control requirements, so that national authorities can monitor and report information to the UN.

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In December 2018, I attended the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna thanks to the organizing efforts of For Alternative Approaches to Addiction, Think & do tank (FAAAT). While at that time major cannabis reform commitments were expected, no policy changes came to fruition and the international trade of CBD remains hindered by the lack of action.

While these policy considerations by global agencies bode well for cannabis reform, they’ll take years to implement. And that may lead to tightened controls and additional levels of regulation – perhaps not the outcome activists and lobbyists had envisioned for international cannabis policy reform.

The U.N. created the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) to monitor and amend the designations assigned to substances, which is where the WHO comes in. It’s required by international law to research medical and scientific benefits and risks associated with substances such as cannabis. In turn, the CND implements the WHO’s recommendations when making scheduling decisions regarding a plant or substance. So how significant was the WHO’s recent recommendations on cannabis to the CND?

Nonetheless, policy change never moves as quickly as one would like. Presently, the CND is planning to move forward with a vote on these recommendations this December at UN Headquarters in Vienna, Austria.