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What Happens if the DEA Reclassifies Marijuana?

This week the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said that it will make a decision in the coming months on whether to remove marijuana (cannabis) as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Marijuana has been in that classification since the promulgation of the Act in 1970. The Act classifies drugs into five categories. Schedule II includes morphine, cocaine, oxycodone, Schedule III, IV and V includes those drugs containing smaller amounts of certain narcotic and non-narcotic drugs, anti-anxiety drugs, tranquilizers, sedatives, stimulants, and non-narcotic analgesics like Valium and codeine. Currently marijuana, along with heroin, LSD, PCP and peyote, is classified as one of the most dangerous drugs without any accepted medical value and with a highly addictive characteristic.

Congress, has called for the DEA and FDA to consider this reclassification.
Congress, has called for the DEA and FDA to consider this reclassification.

Congress to Take Action?

Congress, state legislatures, the medical community and a legal challenge have all called for the DEA and FDA to consider this reclassification. In 2015 Congress introduced the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act which along with removing federal penalties and restrictions for producing, distributing and possessing marijuana for medical purposes, gave military veterans access to medical marijuana in states where it is legal, allowed financial institutions to provide banking services to marijuana businesses, and would reclassified marijuana from “Schedule I” to “Schedule II. The bill is still pending. State legislatures are also calling for the reclassification; for example, in Utah the legislature unanimousy passed a bill asking Congress to reclassify marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II.

A Court Challenge

This year also saw the American College of Physicians and other professionals calling for the FDA to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug and a legal challenge to the current classification was brought in a case called United States v. Schweder, et. al., No. 2:11-CR-0449-KJM. The attorneys in that case argued that it’s impossible to say marijuana has no accepted medical value, and that the federal classification of the plant is unconstitutional since 23 states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes. There is a growing body of research highlighting marijuana’s medical promise and the federal view of marijuana is evolving. The judge in the Schweder case rightfully stated that the change could not come from the courts because only from the federal government has jurisdiction over the classification.

Interior of American courtroom
There is a legal challenge to the current classification in the courts.

The FDA albeit not reclassifying cannabis, has been eking out decisions that approve cannabis derivatives for medical purposes. The FDA has approved two cannabinoid medications — dronabinal (Marinol) and Nabilone (cesamet). Other cannabinoid-based medications, like Sativex which is approved in Canada and Europe, are under FDA review for treating cancer pain, spasticity and other conditions.

What Could It All Mean?

So what happens if marijuana is classified as a Schedule II drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act? The states need to rethink their state Substance Control Acts because they typically mirror the federal Act. Do they follow suit? If not, will it remain a “dangerous drug” in some states while not in others? Will all of the states decriminalize marijuana? Will that decriminalization cause more of an increase in use that may be harmful and addictive especially to adolescents? Or will it just open the door for more thorough empirical testing and university research in order to establish clinical standards related to dosage and potency? Or will it just “allow states to set their own medical marijuana statutes free of federal interference, allow medical marijuana dispensaries to access the banking system, and allow doctors at government agencies like the Department of Veterans Affairs to prescribe medical marijuana in states where it’s permitted.”

The DEA decision will have an impact however it decides on the issue of reclassification of marijuana. What do you think?

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