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‘The World Needs A Cannabis Initiative That Serves Citizens. Not One That Serves A Decadent International Bureaucracy’

By European cannabis researcher and thought-leader Kenzi Riboulet-Zemouli

THERE is much concern over the International Narcotics Control Board’s Cannabis Control Initiative, as reported by BusinessCann earlier this week.

What the INCB suggests poses a serious risk to cannabis as it has neither a mandate, nor expertise whatsoever on cannabis medicines, hemp, hemp products, or cultivation. 

There are other organisations that do have expertise in these areas, such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Secretariat to the Convention on Biological Diversity (SCBD) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), who are experts in medicines, foods, plants and crops.

While the INCB’s outcome will be not binding, its guidelines usually set the standard, and, as such, it may be difficult to deviate from the harmonisation that they could contain.

Cannabis Initiative Way Beyond INCB’s Remit

And, as things stand, the basis upon which INCB has started its work of harmonization fails to reflect the full reality of cannabis, which is complex, and not well understood by policy-makers who often lack a comprehensive understanding of the issues at stake: in terms of economics, of health, agriculture, geographic, social and cultural embeds, or in terms of industry and market specificities, etc.

For example, the INCB initially considered cannabis and cannabis resin – the flowers and the raw extract – only as an API, excluding them from products that could be supplied to patients. 

If countries were to harmonise domestic regulations on this basis, this would conflict with the common practise of providing herbal formulations of cannabis to patients, including flowers and resin. It would also go against traditional and indigenous medicine, which are however protected under human rights law.

Likewise, the INCB has suggested that only fibres and seed-based products should be considered as “industrial cannabis” or hemp, therefore viewing all other products as a controlled drug (including, for instance, hemp teas of CBD-based products). 

This Cannabis Initiative is way beyond its remit. What INCB is mandated to do is issuing a variety of International Drug System (IDS) codes for cannabis that reflect the diversity and reality of the products made from that plant. 

Instead, they are attempting, from the top-down, to green-light only some cannabis medicines, only some hemp products. This is not their job. Rather, what they are doing is an overreach on what is clearly the role of national and local governments.

New International Standards Needed

The Cannabis Initiative should be limited to that, However, as some countries struggle with their cannabis regulations, the ask for “assistance” from international entities will continue. 

After the removal of cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV in December 2020, many governments see that ‘some tool’ is needed beyond the current ones, based on prohibition; they see the need for something new from the UN. But they are not necessarily happy with the way INCB carries on its work so far.

Kenzi Riboulet-Zemouli

A number of countries in Europe, Oceania, and the Caribbean, see the Cannabis Initiative as a breach in their sovereignty, and are urging the INCB to substantially reduce the scope of its Cannabis Initiative. Others like Japan wish the Initiative to provide a comprehensive guide which would include details on cultivation, security measures, formulations, packaging, cannabinoid contents, etc.

Be it in this Initiative or another, there is demand, and a need for, some sort of international standard. But not set by the INCB alone. Opening up to other bodies such as FAO, WHO and the Human Rights bodies, as well as experts from civil society, academia and affected populations, is an essential next step to consider all of the issues that have so far been totally ignored.

But here lies one of the key problems with the INCB: a number of scholars have shown that it is by far among the most secretive of all international organisations. 

INCB – A Relic From The Past

Nobody has access to their discussions, to the agenda of meetings, and there are no minutes published (contrary to all UN entities to date). There is concern about possible conflicts of interests, since the list of participants, experts, and people or entities providing input continues to be kept secret.

Effectively, the INCB is a relic from the past – in the 21st Century, it could easily be replaced by a spreadsheet – and this move could be interpreted rather as a ‘survival initiative’. 

Because of its limited mandate, the INCB is afraid for its long-term sustainability, as drugs are more and more regulated in a way that does not require its involvement. 

Decentralized, locally-regulated dispensary or cannabis clubs threaten the model of government monopoly that INCB cherishes, and is mandated to monitor.

In placing itself at the centre of a topic that is generating debate, money and concern from some governments, in becoming a player in the legal cannabis panorama (after strongly opposing any cannabis policy reform for decades), the INCB increases its chances for continued operations and sustained funding.

The world needs a Cannabis Initiative that serves citizenship and societies as a whole. Not a tool that serves a decadent international bureaucracy. 

However, it will take political courage from Member States to achieve this. And political courage comes when civil societies pressure their governments at a national level. 

Mr Riboulet-Zemouli has set up a website to to track the cannabis Initiative. Click here

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