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Traditional medicine & Cannabis [Fact sheet - Changes in the scope of control over cannabis]



Changes in the scope of control over cannabis: Cannabis, Traditional medicine & the 1961 Convention. Confusions and gaps in understanding surround the recommendations of the WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence regarding medicines made of cannabis or cannabis-related substances. This series of fact sheets seeks to bring light on the recommendations, and to clarify the implications in terms of changes (or not) in legal frameworks.
Changes in the scope of control over cannabis
Cannabis, Traditional medicine & the 1961 Convention
Kenzi Riboulet-Zemouli
Licence CC BY-SA 4.0
This series of fact sheets seeks to bring light and clarify the implications of the recommendations in terms of legal frameworks.
Cannabis sativa is one of the most ancient herbal remedies known to Homo sapiens
.In 2002, the INCB recognized that “Cannabis has
been used in traditional medicine in some countries for centuries” (E/INCB/2001/1 §208). This same report explained that “Countries where
traditional use of cannabis existed were allowed a 25-year moratorium to phase out the use of cannabis for purposes other than medical and
scientific purposes, in accordance with 1961 Conv. Art. 49.” But the “traditional use” mentioned does not concern traditional medicine,
which is a subset of medical purposes (allowed by the 1961 Convention), it concerned only traditional non-medical and non-scientific uses.
Traditional medicine (TM) has never been, is not, and will never be prohibited under international law. To the contrary, it is admitted
that the access to idiosyncratic forms of healthcare such as TM is part of the right to health (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Art.
25, and Int. Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Art. 12), and is protected under the United Nations Declaration on the
Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP, A/RES/61/295), particularly in Art 24.
Authoritative, the Commentary on 1961 Convention (p.111 §12) explains that “‘medical purposes’ does not necessarily have the same
meaning at all times and under all circumstances [...] not only ‘western medicine’
, but also legitimate systems of indigenous medicine such
as those which exist in China, India and Pakistan, may be taken into account in this connexion.” The Records of the United Nations
Conference for the Adoption of a Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (7th plenary meeting, 31 Jan. 1961, vol.1 pp.24-26) are even clearer in
this regard: in 1961, the international community did not recognize the legitimacy of the use of cannabis in “Western medicine”: it recognized
it only in “indigenous medicine.” This was different for opium, which therapeutic use was recognized in both “Western” and “indigenous”
forms of medicine. The outcome of the WHO Expert reviews legitimizes the use of Cannabis in western medicine; it does not affect the
use of Cannabis
in TM, which has always been recognized internationally.
WHO defines TM as “the sum total of the knowledge, skill and practices based on the theories, beliefs and experiences indigenous to different
cultures (whether explicable or not) used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of
physical and mental illness.” But Cannabis is not a TM only by its history: also because of its formulations and of the way it is used and
perceived by patients and physicians. “The preference among some patients for the medical use of herbal preparations of the whole
cannabis plant rather than pharmaceutical products has strong similarities to the reasons people give for using traditional herbal
medicines.” One problem is the lack of historical studies: records are often lacking or incomplete; e.g. researchers note that “most of the
relevant Chinese historical records [on medicinal uses of cannabis] have not yet been translated into Western languages to facilitate textual
research (See: Joseph Brand & Zhao, Front Pharmacol. 2017;8:108. DOI:10.3389/fphar.2017.00108) “The fact that field-based academic
research in cannabis-producing countries has most often been limited in time, scope, and depth, explains why a large number academics and
journalists alike write rather inaccurately not only about the Cannabis plant but also about the many traditional [...] cannabis end products”
(See Chouvy, EchoGeo
2019;48. DOI:10.4000/echogeo.17591).
Even beyond Europe, “most pharmaceutical regulatory systems allow the use of herbal medicines that do not meet the same
requirements as those for pharmaceutical medicines [...] For example, manufacturers of traditional herbal medicines with well-established
uses are not usually required to provide evidence of efficacy and safety from clinical trials. Instead, they are required only to show evidence of
product quality and consistency to ensure that consumers receive standardised doses of herbal products that are free from contaminants or
adulterants.” (Medical use of cannabis and cannabinoids: Q&A for policymaking, EMCDDA, 2018)
. Countries with documented TM uses of
cannabis should harmonize their medical cannabis access programmes with their existing regulatory frameworks on TM.
TMs, including Cannabis sativa
, are also the object of intense research, drug development, and other industry-related purposes. Member States
might want to scale-up their regulatory protections of natural and genetic resources against biopiracy and the undue appropriation of
local and indigenous communities’ legacy intellectual property, e.g.
using the instruments of the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Traditional presence of Cannabis
National policies on TM
Countries with locally-specific genetic chemovars of
Cannabis sativa
, and documented traditional
knowledge/cultural expressions, ahead of Jan. 1st, 1961.
Countries with documented traditional cultural
expressions and folklore, ahead of January 1st, 1961.
No data available.
National policy on T&CM
No national policy on T&CM
No data available
Not applicable
Source: WHO global report on traditional and complementary medicine 2019. ©
World Health Organization 2019, All rights reserved.
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