The DEA recently told lawmakers that they will likely reconsider marijuana’s current legal classification in the first half of 2016, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there will be good news this summer. Over the past few decades, the federal government has examined marijuana scheduling many times and each time decided to keep it Schedule I, which legally defines marijuana has having “a high potential for abuse” and “no currently accepted medical use.”
If the DEA does act, though, it is most likely only to move marijuana to Schedule II, since there is a growing political push for that change. Several senators and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton have called for moving marijuana to Schedule II, which would legally define it as having a high potential for abuse but with an accepted medical use in treatment. That’s the same Schedule as cocaine and morphine.
To fully understand what this potential change would mean, you need to separate the rather modest legal implications from the important political signal it would send.
The legal implications
In the short term, if marijuana were moved to Schedule II but nothing else changed, the impact would be fairly minor, as Mark Kleiman argued in 2014. State-approved medical marijuana would still be illegal in the eyes of the federal government, just like any use of cocaine is illegal except in an FDA-approved form or setting. Theoretically, as a Schedule II drug, marijuana could be prescribed but only if a specific preparation of marijuana goes through the process to become an FDA-approved medication — an expensive process that could take years and might never happen. At most, the FDA would likely only approve particular extracts of cannabis and not the raw flower.
Schedule II would legally make research on federally-approved marijuana somewhat easier. The licensing and reporting requirements to be able to conduct clinical trials with any Schedule I substance are more stringent than drugs in lower classifications. Yet one of the biggest hurdles to research is actually the DEA-mandated National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) monopoly over production of approved marijuana. Even if marijuana is moved to Schedule II, the DEA could still use this monopoly or its ability to set production quotas to continue to hinder research.
The important political impact of rescheduling
The impact of moving marijuana to Schedule II would be much greater than what a mere examination of the legal technicalities would imply. To understand why, you need to look at other Schedule II substances. Cocaine is still a highly controlled Schedule II medication, so logically the source of cocaine – coca leaves – is classified as Schedule II as well. Similarly, morphine is used for medical treatment so its source, opium poppy, shares its Schedule II status.
Yet synthetic THC is Schedule III, while marijuana – the natural source of THC – remains Schedule I. The DEA is effectively claiming that even though marijuana naturally produces a proven medicine, it also magically has no medical value. The federal government is clearly signaling that their disdain for marijuana is so strong that they are willing to not only ignore the current science but also basic logic to hinder it.
As a result, by keeping marijuana Schedule I, the federal government is sending a powerful message to researchers, drug companies, hospitals, and similar institutions: that they should not waste their time and money on marijuana’s medical uses. They are going to face unnecessary hurdles at every turn and their results will likely be ignored by regulators.
So, if the DEA were to move marijuana to Schedule II this summer, it could signal a profound paradigm shift. It would likely indicate that the federal government is finally willing to start moving beyond its irrational disdain of marijuana. We would likely see a significant increase in interest from researchers and companies once it seemed like their work wouldn’t be actively hindered and dismissed by officials. To fully see the medical potential of marijuana explored and utilized would still take further steps at the federal level, but nothing is going to happen until the federal government is willing to at least legally acknowledge that marijuana has medical value. Rescheduling marijuana is the first step.