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Highs and lows of UN cannabis decision

By Stephen Ndegwa
Thursday, December 10th, 2020
United Nations. Photo/Courtesy
In summary

Cannabis sativa, popularly known as bhang, weed or simply cannabis, is one of the most regulated, if not banned plants globally.

But the ground might now shift somewhat after the UN on Wednesday removed the cannabis from the category of most dangerous of drugs. 

In essence, the 53-member state UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) voted to declassify cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs - where it was listed alongside deadly, addictive drugs like heroin for 59 years.

This frees cannabis from stigma as an offensive narcotic, and offers great opportunities for research aimed at recognising and exploiting its medicinal and therapeutic potential.

Quoting news reports, the UN statement noted that “the decision could also drive additional scientific research into the plant’s long-heralded medicinal properties and act as catalyst for countries to legalise the drug for medicinal use, and reconsider laws on its recreational use.”

According to research, cannabis contains at least 85 known cannabinoids (extracts), many of which have medical value.

For instance, evidence from one cell culture study with rodents and animals suggests purified extracts from whole-plant cannabis can slow the growth of cancer cells from one of the most serious types of brain tumours.

The studies seem to indicate cannabinoids may help kill certain cancer cells and reduce size of others. 

Research is ongoing to establish whether the drug’s extracts can actually treat symptoms of illness and other conditions, such as diseases that affect the immune system like HIV/Aids and multiple sclerosis, inflammation, pain, seizures, substance use disorders and mental disorders.

Cannabis is also said to alleviate diabetes, epilepsy, depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, Alzheimer’s among other ailments.

However, the UN news may not be music to everyone’s ears, particularly in countries opposed to drug policy reforms that would legalize substances deemed dangerous to people’s lives.

Weed is still illegal in many countries, and some fear that opening that door will lead to an influx of similar proposals for other psychotropic substances under the guise of their medicinal value or even mental health.

This concern was captured in a statement by Chile, one of the naysayers of cannabis legalisation during the UNCND voting.

The country argued that “there is a direct relationship between the use of cannabis and increased chances of suffering from depression, cognitive deficit, anxiety, psychotic symptoms, among others.”

Cannabis is still largely socially and religiously anathema. Religious reasons are based on morality, while social restrictions result from enculturation.

However, it is possible to change these beliefs and attitudinal strongholds if the need arises. 

Legally, the situation is changing quite fast in some parts of the world. In 2019 there were about 26 countries where weed was either legal or did not attract strict legal sanctions.

More than 50 countries have already adopted medicinal cannabis programmes. Most of these countries are in both Western and Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America and at least 15 US states. 

Due to a combination of the factors mentioned above, African countries as a whole might take longer to jump into the marijuana legalisation bandwagon.  

Pro-cannabis lobbyists say that while cannabis has been associated with the low socio-economic strata of society, the stigma is gradually fading. 

But since there might be no reneging on this landmark decision, Ecuador’s sentiments that cannabis production, sale and use should have “a regulatory framework that guarantees good practices, quality, innovation and research development” is a good anchor for the uncharted waters. — The writer is a communications expert and public policy  analyst [email protected]

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