For the first time ever, the World Health Organization met last week to review the safety of cannabis.
The United Nations’ drug committee found that marijuana is a “relatively safe drug,” noting that millions of people worldwide are already using it to manage a multitude of medical conditions.
The findings could impact a recommendation the agency is preparing to the UN on the “need for and level of international control” over cannabis. Marijuana prohibition is in force almost worldwide under international drug treaties originally dating back to 1961.
Worldwide, an estimated 183 million adults used cannabis in 2015, according to the report. Weed is cultivated in 135 countries and is the “most widely illicitly produced drug worldwide.”
The UN agency conducted a survey of 953 medical marijuana patients from 31 nations. Most of them said they’d used cannabis-based medicines for years. Most were also under the supervision of a physician. But a majority said they’d also tried cannabis before getting a doctor’s recommendation.
Used most often for pain
Cannabis, in various forms, is used most often to control back pain, sleep disorders, anxiety, depression, post-injury pain, and multiple sclerosis, according to the report. Pain, sleep disturbances, and anxiety were the three conditions most commonly treated with cannabis.
An estimated 2.2 million patients use cannabis medicinally in the United States. Pain is the most often cited qualifying condition. Pain also ranked high among cannabis patients in Israel and Canada. Meanwhile, 30 percent of cannabis patients in the United Kingdom reported using the herb to treat multiple sclerosis. (Cannabis-infused Sativex spray is commonly prescribed for M.S. in Great Britain.)
The committee, interestingly, pointed to a “wealth of preclinical literature” indicating cannabinoids “reduce cancer cell proliferation” and inhibit “cancer cell migration and angiogenesis in numerous cancer cell types.” This seems to be an area of great promise, with more research to come.
Then there are the recreational cannabis users. An estimated 3 to 5 percent of people globally have tried marijuana for non-medical reasons, according to the UN report. Interestingly, two studies examined by the report found no significant differences between those who use cannabis medically and nonmedical users.
One study, however, found medical patients used more cannabis daily than recreational consumers. Medical patients were more likely to be in poorer health than recreational users. But the study found they also had lower levels of both alcoholism and nonprescription drug use.
The UN report noted that scientific research into cannabis is inadequate. There’s plenty of public interest, but very few clinical trials have been done, due largely to the legal strictures of prohibition.
“Barriers to research in the USA include the difficulty of navigating through several federal agencies (including the aforementioned DEA, FDA) as well as research ethics boards and local and state oversight concerns,” according to the report.
The UN report, interestingly enough, also noted problems in quality control from the current single source of cannabis for scientific research in the US. All federal cannabis is grown at one farm on the campus of The University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss.
“The current international policies on cannabis use are outdated and are having a detrimental impact on patients in the US and worldwide,” said Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access (ASA). “These policies do not reflect the reality of over 30 countries globally that have passed medical cannabis laws.”
UN Chief Wants to Decrim All Drugs
UN Secretary-General António Guterres in March gave a speech supporting the decriminalization of all drugs. His comments went counter to the UN’s top narcotics officials. They’d released a report earlier the same week criticizing cannabis legalization around the world.
“Current efforts have fallen short of the goal to eliminate the illicit drugs market,” said Guterres in a video message. “We can promote efforts to stop organized crime while protecting human rights, enabling development and ensuring rights-based treatment and support. I am particularly proud of the results of the reforms I introduced in Portugal when I was prime minister almost 20 years ago.”
Guterres, as prime minister of Portugal, introduced the decriminalization of all drugs in that nation in 2001. The policy is viewed as a success and has been praised by advocates around the world. Overdose deaths, HIV infections, and even overall use has reduced under decrim in the country.