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The World Health Organization Won't Reschedule Cannabis. Should We Care?

In a surprising development, the U.N. comitee decided to punt on their decision to recommend or reschedule cannabis.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Earlier this week at the International Cannabis Policy Conference, which is being held at United Nations Headquarters in Vienna, Austria, participants were very excited about the prospects of the United Nations World Health Organization rescheduling the legal status of the plant.


All signs looked promising. Last May, the UN released its first-ever review of marijuana, offering some positive assessments. And earlier this month, the Federal Drug Administration got involved, asking the American people what they thought the U.S.’ recommendation should be.

But, in a somewhat surprising blow, the World Health Organization's Expert Committee on Drug Dependence came out with an announcement saying it would decline to give recommendations or reschedule cannabis. The Committee argued it needed more time to complete a thorough critical review.

“It’s unfortunate to hear the news on the decision from the WHO,” said Evan Eneman, CEO of the MGO/ELLO Alliance. “Every day we see more and more researchers, health institutions, investors, large multinational operators and entrepreneurs entering the space to support the sustainable growth of this industry.”

Related: FDA Welcomes Public Comments on Marijuana

Shaken But Not Surprised

While many experts in the cannabis industry are disappointed, not all are surprised. Emily Paxhia, co-founder and managing partner at cannabis-focused hedge fund Poseidon Asset Management, noted that the cannabis industry is used to seeing “progress coupled with setbacks.” Hurdles are inherent to the nature of this space, she added. “We are always optimistic and hopeful about seeing progress, understanding the plant and studying it further, so we can better comprehend all the positive attributes that the plant can bring to society," she told Green Entrepreneur. "But, it's also not that surprising to see that outdated perceptions and misperceptions are holding back adoption of studying, researching and looking more positively into the cannabis plant.”

Jonas Duclos, co-founder and CEO of Switzerland-based JKB Research, called the WHO announcement "obviously disappointing but not a real surprise," explaining that "the main problem is that governments are far behind when it comes to innovation and research. They are not well informed and don't know the right people to work with." He sees opportunity in the disconnect. "The cannabis industry has to be led by its real wellness potential, rather than the profits it can beget. Although the WHO is a key actor in this process, this opens the door for others to demonstrate initiative in the short term.”


How Bad Is It?

But, while many in the cannabis industry were unhappy with the WHO’s decision, some agreed with it.

“We need to think of cannabinoids as we do any other plant-derived pharmacological agent that has historically been derived from plants such as paclitaxel, morphine and even codeine," said Christine Allen, professor at the University of Toronto and Chief Scientific Officer at Avicanna, a Canadian cannabinoid biotech company. "All of these drugs have a safe and effective dose and are contraindicated in certain patient populations. It is critical that the gaps in our knowledge are filled in a timely manner in order to sufficiently educate the medical community and the public,”

CEO of Avicanna, Aras Azadian,  also agrees with the WHO’s decision. “We have tested many products currently on the market that contain potentially toxic degradants and can be metabolized in the body to compounds with an unknown safety profile. Cannabis has become a cash crop and many unqualified companies are offering these unsafe products to consumers and patients. We're afraid that many of the benefits patients experience with CBD products specifically may also be a placebo effect as we have tested the bio-availability of CBD products," he said

What’s Next

Lezli Engelking, founder of the Foundation Of Cannabis Unified Standards, (FOCUS) who tracks issues like these predicts that the WHO won't take action -- if they take action at all -- until March of 2020.

But he cautions that “given the surprising and novel move by WHO, all bets are off. Policy can always be adjusted -- just as it was today. One thing is for sure though: the time is now for the cannabis industry to step up their game and show the world it can produce safe, consistent, quality products that don’t pose an unnecessary risk to patients, consumers, the public, and the environment.”

Adding to this point, Eneman said the industry as a whole, and society, have an “obligation to understand exactly what this plant is capable of as well as how it can be misused or abused.

“It is clear that this plant in all the existing and contemplated forms is far safer than many other substances we consume. It is also clear as to the direction we are heading, and it is an important time to focus on establishing international trust and transparency for this industry. We need the support from policymakers, operators, financiers and regulators. There have been pioneers for years willing to support the safety and efficacy of the cultivation and consumption of this plant, and there are many many new entrants who want to explore the possibilities of what it can do, including the largest, most credentialed and most influential researchers in the world. WHO and others need to get behind this movement and allow all of the good stewards to help shape the way for a safe, effective and sustainable industry.”