For the first time ever, the World Health Organization is recommending the rescheduling of cannabis under international law in light of the increasing number of its well-established medical benefits. The shift comes following widespread moves toward legalization on the national level in places like Canada, Mexico, and Uruguay, and as the U.S. federal government increasingly signals an intention to tolerate state-level legalization.

The recommendation would see both cannabis and its active components downgraded from the most restrictive category of drugs under a 1961 drug convention and removed entirely from a 1971 treaty. Furthermore, WHO is recommending that CBD products with less than 0.2 percent THC be wholly excluded from the scheduling system and, therefore, “not under international control.”

The direct effects of the recommendation would be limited. The move would not go as far as formally allowing countries to legalize under international law.  However, coming at a time of rapid cannabis reform in many countries, the recommendation sends a strong message and even appears to admit that past decades of drug policy may have been based on unsubstantiated claims.

In the WHO system, Schedule IV is the most strictly controlled category of drugs and currently includes both cannabis and heroin (unlike the U.S. system in which Schedule I is the most restricted).  Cannabis products are currently included under both Schedule IV and Schedule I of the WHO system. Under the recommendation cannabis would remain under Schedule I, indicating some addictive potential and risk of abuse. However, cannabis would be removed from Schedule IV, a category reserved for drugs with few, if any, medical benefits.


Some countries are expected to oppose the recommendation while others, such as Canada, that have already legalized are widely expected to support it. Although a significant number of U.S. states have legalized either medical or recreational cannabis, the federal policy has remained largely unchanged and it is unclear how the U.S. will respond.

Historically, pressure from the U.S. was instrumental in compelling other countries to enforce prohibition and adopt international guidelines similar to those of the WHO. Currently, however, the federal government has seemed increasingly hesitant to enforce its own cannabis policy in the growing number of legal cannabis states.

Following the ouster of hardliner Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose ambiguous statements and repeal of the Obama-era Cole Memo kept the cannabis industry constantly guessing at the possibility of federal enforcement, Trump’s new pick for the role has signaled a more explicitly hands-off approach.

At his confirmation hearing, Attorney General William Barr said he planned to tolerate the current détente between state and federal law – despite his distaste for it.  He stated that his “approach to this would be not to upset settled expectations and the reliant interests that have arisen as a result of the Cole memorandum.”  He added, however, that “the current situation is untenable and really has to be addressed. It’s almost like a backdoor nullification of federal law.”

cannabis WHO rescheduling

Responding to a question from Senator Cory Booker, he indicated that he would not  “go after companies that have relied on the Cole memorandum. However, we either should have a federal law that prohibits marijuana everywhere, which I would support myself because I think it’s a mistake to back off marijuana. However, if we want a federal approach—if we want states to have their own laws—then let’s get there and get there in the right way.”

It is unclear how realistic it is to hope for an actual change in U.S. federal cannabis law in the near future, but a number of shifts in Congress in last year’s election suggest it may be less far-fetched than ever before.  

Meanwhile, following the WHO recommendation, the European Parliament voted to pass a non-binding resolution encouraging European Union nations to increase access to medical cannabis and to enable further research and clinical studies.

The big picture of all these developments points toward more institutional support for cannabis globally than at any point in decades. While across the board these statements, resolutions, and recommendations remain unsubstantial in terms of policy, they send a strong message to governments that are considering more substantive reform. They suggest that these institutions may be cautiously admitting that past policy has been built on misleading, or at least incomplete, information and even signal that enforcement of existing prohibition law may no longer be the highest priority.

It will undoubtedly take time to unravel decades of entrenched prohibition policy, especially on an international level. We may, however, be seeing signs that it is becoming a real possibility.