A World Health Organization (WHO) committee met earlier this month to go over a pre-review of the research it’s done on cannabis. This pre-review, which deems marijuana a “relatively safe drug” and includes a number of studies pointing to the plant’s beneficial effects, could ultimately bring about cannabis law reform all around the world. The WHO, which is made up of 194 member countries including the U.S., works within the United Nations framework to “achieve better health for everyone, everywhere”—meaning, it can and does influence the legal classification of various drugs by its member countries.
Prior to the WHO meeting, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asked the general public to weigh in on whether marijuana should remain a Schedule 1 drug on par with LSD and heroin—as designated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. The FDA received over 17,000 comments, the majority of which favored an end to cannabis prohibition. These comments were submitted to the WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD), the group conducting the formal review on cannabis’s safety and medical value.
The WHO Highlights Cannabis’s Beneficial Effects With Certain Conditions
The ECDD reaffirmed its preliminary findings, released back in December 2017, with a critical review that states cannabidiol (CBD) has no negative health-related problems associated with its consumption. Rather, it concludes, “CBD is generally well tolerated with a good safety profile,” and no potential for abuse or dependency.
Meanwhile, the committee’s pre-review included a look at current research on cannabis and cannabis resin, extracts and tinctures, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and THC isomers. When it comes to the therapeutic use of marijuana for specific conditions, here’s some of what the committee found:
- Appetite stimulation in HIV/AIDS infection: “Dronabinol and smoked cannabis led to significantly greater weight gain. … Both dronabinol and smoked cannabis … did not adversely affect viral load.”
- Chronic pain: “Many randomized, controlled clinical trials have shown cannabis to be an effective analgesic. … [However,] no randomized, placebo-controlled trials of cannabis for treatment of chronic pain have been published.”
- Crohn’s disease: In the only randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of the use of smoked cannabis for patients with Crohn disease, … the cannabis smokers group had a significant response on the Crohn Disease Activity Index.”
- Dementia: “Cannabis oil containing THC as an add-on pharmacotherapy for dementia produced a significant reduction in clinical global impression (CGI) and neuropsychiatric inventory (NPI) scores.”
- Diabetic neuropathy: “Inhaled cannabis was found to be associated with a dose-dependent reduction in pain associated with diabetic peripheral neuropathy.”
- Migraine and cluster headaches: “Acute administration of cannabis as abortive therapy decreased attack pain from both migraines and cluster headaches [in participants with a history of childhood migraine].”
- Nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy: “[Six] studies [of oral THC capsules] suggested a greater benefit of cannabinoids versus both placebo and active comparators, but these benefits did not reach statistical significance in all studies.”
- Parkinson’s disease: “In an open-label, uncontrolled, observational study of smoked or vaporized cannabis …, cannabis significantly decreased motor disability and pain scores.”
- Sleep disorder: “While many patients report that cannabis improves their sleep due to its propensity to reduce sleep latency, cannabis has also been shown to reduce REM sleep. … Therefore, the quality of sleep achieved with cannabis may be poor.”
- Tourette syndrome: “In two randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials …, dronabinol produced either significant improvement in tics or a trend toward such improvement, as well as a significant improvement in obsessive-compulsive behavior.”
Cannabis Isn’t Good for Everyone, Though More Research Is Needed
The ECDD concluded that randomized, controlled studies were scarce or non-existent for a number of other ailments such as autism and opioid withdrawal, making it impossible for the committee to review marijuana’s effectiveness in treating quite a few conditions.
Though the committee found that “cannabis is not associated with acute fatal overdoses,” it did highlight potential adverse effects as follows:
- Smoking cannabis was reported to raise testicular cancer risk two-and-a-half times the norm.
- Cannabis consumers gave birth to babies who weighed on average of 109 g less than [that of] moms who didn’t consume marijuana.
- Cognitive issues included short-term memory loss, impaired judgment, and reduced motor coordination.
A Final Recommendation From the WHO Will Go to the UN Secretary General
That said, the positives appear to outweigh the negatives in the ECDD critical review as well as its pre-reviews. A more extensive review will take place, and any new scientific data discovered will get rolled into a final recommendation presented to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
As Portugal’s prime minister, Guterres led the country in decriminalizing all drugs, including marijuana. So, it’s safe to assume that he’d look positively on a change to international cannabis laws, one that might remove marijuana from Schedules I and IV of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs—an international treaty meant to block the production and supply of illicit drugs.
Were this to happen, it could then open the door for the UN’s participating countries to reform their own cannabis laws, making the plant more accessible for both research and consumption purposes.
As Jahan Marcu, chief science officer of Americans for Safe Access, explained it to Weed News, “The reports posted by WHO are supportive of nations considering rescheduling or de-scheduling CBD, pure-THC, cannabis and cannabis extracts.
“Hopefully, the work of the WHO will allow international leaders to expand access with policy recommendations and changes with reports showing that the public health risk of cannabis and its extracts are minimal.”
Photo credit: Xiquinho Silva