In line with a recommendation from the World Health Organization (WHO), a United Nations drug panel narrowly voted to remove cannabis from the most restrictive scheduling category.

Twenty-seven countries in the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) favored deleting marijuana from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention, while 25 voted against the move and one abstained. Other drugs under Schedule IV include cocaine, fentanyl and heroin. The US delegation was one of the countries that voted in favor of the proposal.

The vote doesn’t mean marijuana is legal under international conventions since it still holds Schedule I status, but it’s nonetheless an indication the international community is softening in its stance toward the plant. Given Canada and Uruguay have legalized cannabis, with Israel and Mexico poised to become the third and fourth countries to do so, and an abundance of research attesting to marijuana’s medical value, such an evolution is to be expected.

The WHO’s recommendation to reschedule cannabis was one of six the health body made on global marijuana policy last year. The recent CND meeting was the first opportunity to vote on the six WHO recommendations following a series of delays and postponements. The other five reforms suggested by the WHO were rejected by the CND, but were arguably of less significance than the approved proposal.

In a statement, the US delegation said moving cannabis from Schedule IV to Schedule I is correct as it recognizes marijuana’s therapeutic value and enables more research into the plant while still regarding it as a significant risk to public health.

“The vote of the United States to remove cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV of the Single Convention while retaining them in Schedule I is consistent with the science demonstrating that while a safe and effective cannabis-derived therapeutic has been developed, cannabis itself continues to pose significant risks to public health and should continue to be controlled under the international drug control conventions,” the statement reads.

“Further, this action has the potential to stimulate global research into the therapeutic potential and public health effects of cannabis, and to attract additional investigators to the field, including those who may have been deterred by the Schedule IV status of cannabis,” it continues.

The EU delegation voted in favor of the measure, while Russia, China and Japan voted against it.

Ann Fordham, executive director of the International Drug Policy Consortium, commended the international community’s “long overdue recognition that cannabis is a medicine,” while calling for bolder action.

“However, this reform alone is far from adequate given that cannabis remains incorrectly scheduled at the international level,” she said. “The original decision to prohibit cannabis lacked scientific basis and was rooted in colonial prejudice and racism. It disregarded the rights and traditions of communities that have been growing and using cannabis for medicinal, therapeutic, religious and cultural purposes for centuries and has led to millions being criminalized and incarcerated across the globe. The review process has been a missed opportunity to correct that historical error.”

While the US government said in October it would support the WHO recommendation to remove marijuana from Schedule IV, a memo from last year warned such a move could be viewed “as a first step toward widespread legalization of marijuana use, especially without proper messaging.”

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