The United Nation’s World Health Organization has met in Geneva, Switzerland last week to do the global health agency’s first-ever comprehensive review of cannabis and of the drug’s status under international law.
It can be recalled that the WHO had announced plans to conduct a review of the international perspective on cannabis a few months ago. Pursuant to this plan, it asked members of the UN to weigh in and submit feedback on cannabis to help with its high-stakes review.
In response to the growing interest in cannabis for medical purposes, the WHO has gathered a body of scientific evidence on the subject and it has tasked its Expert Committee on Drug Dependence to do a comprehensive review on the matter.
The WHO-ECDD had already done an initial review of cannabidiol or CBD. And late last year, the committee issued its initial findings: that CBD is a safe, low-risk, therapeutic, and non-addictive component of cannabis.
The agency, however, had postponed a more comprehensive and full review of cannabis and cannabis-related substances.
The WHO’s report
The WHO-ECDD reviewed and assessed the medical benefits and harms of cannabis in order to give a recommendation for the most appropriate classification of and level of control over the drug that will be applied internationally.
According to the WHO’s report, cannabis is a relatively safe drug, and millions of people are already using it to manage a wide range of medical conditions.
As part of its report, the WHO surveyed 953 medical cannabis patients from 31 different countries. Most of them said that they had been using cannabis-based medication for several years and that they are currently being advised on treatment by a doctor. A majority of them, however, admitted to trying cannabis even before they obtained a physician’s recommendation.
Moreover, the report noted that the medical conditions for which cannabis is most often used as treatment were sleep disorders, back pain, anxiety, post-injury pain, multiple sclerosis, and depression. Pain, anxiety, and sleep problems were the most common.
In the United States alone, an estimated 2.2 million patients turn to cannabis, with pain being the most common qualifying condition. In Israel and Canada, pain also ranked high. Meanwhile, among British cannabis patients, 30% reported using the drug to help treat multiple sclerosis.
Furthermore, an estimated 3% to 5% of people globally have tried cannabis for non-medical reasons.
Cannabis and opioid use
The WHO’s report also analyzed several studies, including two which found that there are no significant demographic differences between adults who consume cannabis for medical purposes and those who consume it for non-medical purposes.
It also noted that one study shows that consumers of medical cannabis had higher daily cannabis use compared to consumers of recreational cannabis. This study also found that while users of medical cannabis were more likely to be in poorer health than recreational cannabis users, cannabis patients also had lower levels of non-prescription drug use and alcoholism.
The WHO’s report also took noted of several other studies done in recent years that have suggested that medical marijuana may even help lower cases of opioid abuse, prescriptions, and overdose deaths.
Lack of cannabis research
According to the WHO report, cannabis research is lagging. It noted that despite great public interest, especially in areas that have been hit hard by the opioid crisis, there have been very few clinical trials. This is mainly due to prohibition.
The report further pointed out that in the U.S., barriers to research include difficulty when it comes to navigating through several federal agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as research ethics boards and concerns related to state and local oversight.
There are also issues that are related to the lack of adequate funding sources, as well as to the quantity, quality, and the kind of cannabis products available from the only federal source of cannabis for research purposes.
The WHO’s full report can be found here.