Despite a wave of state-level legalization and widespread support, the DEA has rejected efforts to reclassify marijuana. For now, it will remain a Schedule I drug. Why? And what does this mean for legalization proponents?
What does “Schedule I” mean?
Enacted in 1970 as an attempt to create a uniform law from the existing diversity of regulations governing individual drugs, the Controlled Substance Act introduced a classification system of five categories, called schedules. The schedules are based on drugs’ acceptable medical use and the potential for abuse or dependency.
Schedule V drugs show the least potential for abuse. Schedule I drugs, meanwhile, are defined by the following characteristics:
- The drug has a high potential for abuse and potential to create severe psychological and/or physical dependence.
- There are no currently accepted medical uses of the drug in the United States.
- The drug is unsafe even under medical supervision.
Drug schedules list a drug’s basic parent chemical, but also any closely related compounds, such as salts, isomers, analogues, and derivatives, are also treated as a Schedule I substance for criminal prosecution, even if they are not specifically mentioned in the drug schedule.
Mary Jane’s schedule
There is no confusion over the scheduling of marijuana. Tetrahydrocannabinols, DEA number 7370, are clearly listed as Schedule I, with other names, “THC, Delta-8 THC, Delta-9 THC, dronabinol and others” specifically identified. Possession of marijuana is still a federal offense with serious legal repercussions.
While the high stimulated by marijuana consumption seems harmless enough, there are drawbacks. THC can impair motor skills for hours after the high has dissipated, can interfere with memory formation, and can cause anxiety and hallucinations instead of a high. It can also aggravate mental illness, lead to respiratory problems, and may decrease cognitive function, according to some studies. Although many people claim marijuana is non-addictive, up to 30 percent of users may develop dependence; however, the debate goes on as to whether it should be characterized as “physical” or “psychological” dependence.
The negative effects, especially in the long-term, are not trivial. But objectively, they aren’t remotely consistent with those of other Schedule I drugs, like heroin, which is highly addictive and can result in lethal overdose (or bath salts, which may lead users to commit murder).
Two of three criteria for a Schedule I classification involve potential medical applications, and here too, marijuana seems out of place. Cannabis has been used as a medicinal plant since ancient times. There is strong anecdotal evidence supporting its use to treat PTSD, especially in veterans. Studies, although inconclusive, indicate cannabinoids may be useful as pain relievers, and for the treatment of nausea, vomiting, anxiety, loss of appetite, and other side effects of cancer treatment. In fact, two cannabinoids are approved and regulated by the FDA as anti-nausea medication.
The FDA has also approved trials of a third marijuana-based drug for treatment of rare epileptic disorders. And a total of 25 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico have legalized the medicinal use of marijuana.
If the Controlled Substance Act is supposed to create a uniform drug law, it has failed dramatically in the case of marijuana.
In addition to legalizing medical marijuana, four states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and a few others have decriminalized possession. The wave of legalization has influenced public attitudes in favor of the drug, which in turn fuels further legalization efforts.
The DEA received a petition in 2011 from then-governors Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and Christine Gregoire of Washington State. It requested that the DEA remove cannabis from Schedule I, with the governors suggesting Schedule II as a more appropriate classification.
With the changes in both public perception and state laws sweeping the nation, many had high hopes (so to speak) earlier this year that the DEA would in fact take action to remove cannabinoids from Schedule I.
But those hopes were dashed. In the DEA’s denial, issued in August, the DEA stated that the United States is a party to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which requires cannabis to be placed in either Schedule I or Schedule II, the primary difference between the two being an acceptable medical use for Schedule II drugs. From the denial:
“Accordingly, in view of section 811(d)(1), this scheduling petition turns on whether marijuana has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States. If it does not, DEA must, pursuant to section 811(d), deny the petition and keep marijuana in schedule I.”
Citing extensive documentation, the DEA found Schedule I to be the correct classification. DEA Chief Chuck Rosenberg defended the decision, saying “This decision isn’t based on danger. This decision is based on whether marijuana, as determined by the FDA, is a safe and effective medicine, and it’s not.”
In a nod to critics who claim researchers are hamstrung in their attempts to determine the medical validity of marijuana, the DEA will expand the number of places approved to grow marijuana for research. Only the University of Mississippi is currently authorized to produce research marijuana.
The last word
Although Rosenberg defended the decision, he attempted to dispel fears that it indicated an impending crackdown, stating that “We are not changing our enforcement priorities.” For now, the impasse between the states and the federal government continues.
Few advocates are willing to wait for new studies before taking action. The National Cannabis Industry Association is already calling on Congress to intervene and help remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act. But when Congress has trouble appropriating funds to treat a recognized health threat like Zika, don’t hold your breath waiting for it to reclassify marijuana.
Image courtesy of post-gazette.com
Note: This article has been corrected; it initially stated LSD is an addictive and “lethal” drug, but scientific consensus indicates it is not actually an addictive substance, and fatal overdoses resulting from taking LSD are extremely rare. The article also incorrectly listed cocaine as a Schedule I drug; it is actually classified as Schedule II.