People who are familiar with marijuana are also familiar with its often contested spot on the list of Schedule I Controlled Substances. For years, advocacy groups have been fighting to have marijuana re-listed or delisted entirely, but as yet there's been no movement. This unfortunate situation makes marijuana harder for patients to access and makes it more difficult for scientists to study marijuana to uncover more of its medicinal benefits. Here's what consumers need to know about the messy history of marijuana's classification:
The Low-Down on Schedule I Classification
Of the five classes the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) uses to classify controlled substances, Schedule I is the most restricted. Substances in the Schedule I group are thought to be the most dangerous and hold the highest potential for abuse and addiction. These drugs are also classified as having no medicinal value. Schedule I substances include heroin, LSD and ecstasy. Drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine are ranked lower than marijuana as Schedule II substances.
The Impact of Schedule I Classification
Ever since marijuana was classified as a Schedule I substance by the Reagan Administration in 1970, people have been fighting to have it removed from the list. Research has proven time and time again that marijuana has a low potential for addiction and abuse (except for a mild risk for adolescents), and multiple studies have shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that marijuana has dozens of medicinal properties that can be used to manage and treat symptoms like chronic pain, eating disorders, anxiety, and depression in a wide variety of patients. There is even a drug derived from cannabis compounds that is currently on the market and being used to treat chemotherapy-induced nausea.
In light of its low potential for abuse and high potential for medicinal value, the fact that marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance is problematic. Because cannabis is scheduled at the highest possible tier by the feds, people who are caught with it in states without medicinal or recreational marijuana laws face harsh penalties. Additionally, researchers who want to study marijuana are forced to leap through a nearly impossible series of bureaucratic hoops to secure permission or funding, which almost always results in no research being conducted.
Additionally, doctors who want to treat patients with marijuana in states without medical marijuana licenses risk litigation or the loss of their medical licenses. Even doctors in states where medical marijuana is legal (such as New York) still don't recommend medical marijuana to their patients due to fears of legal blow back or a loss of their malpractice insurance. These things make it virtually impossible for patients to have safe, secure access to medical marijuana and further impede the research and development of effective, medicinal, marijuana-derived treatments for dangerous health conditions.
Proposals to Reschedule Marijuana
Throughout the last 46 years, there have been dozens, if not hundreds, of proposals to reschedule marijuana. Almost immediately after marijuana was classified as a Schedule I substance, a group called the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) petitioned the DEA to reclassify marijuana as a less-dangerous substance. After a tough, 22-year-long battle in the court system, the feds rejected that appeal. In 2002, the Coalition to Reschedule Cannabis developed another petition that sought to reschedule cannabis, although this request was also denied. The group appealed the decision but was again rejected. The reason for the rejection was that there was no evidence to support the medical use of cannabis. Within the last several years, the DEA and groups of U.S. regulators have conducted additional studies of cannabis and have determined, on two separate occasions, that cannabis needs to remain a Schedule I substance. In 2013, Americans for Safe Access filed yet another appeal cannabis, which was also denied by the courts. More recently, presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have petitioned to deschedule or reschedule marijuana, although changes have yet to take place. Marijuana aficionados remain hopeful, however, as there is much talk about the fact that President Obama may seek to alter marijuana's classification before he leaves office.
Why Marijuana Has Not Been Rescheduled Yet
While there are many theories about why the feds have yet to reschedule marijuana, most experts believe that the issue boils down to doubt about marijuana's medical benefits. Despite the fact that dozens of studies have proven the medical benefits of cannabis, big-name organizations like the FDA remain skeptical. While marijuana aficionados are hopeful that marijuana will be rescheduled shortly, there are dozens of congressional and administrative hurdles standing between marijuana and declassification. While many high-ranking experts believe that the Schedule I classification of marijuana is unfair, Congress remains in gridlock when it comes to changing the plant's classification. Even if classification does change in the coming years, marijuana lovers need to realize that the herb faces many future difficulties, such as the intrusion of big pharma and future legal challenges.
What about the Obama Administration?
While some remain hopeful that President Obama may decide to reclassify marijuana before the end of his term in office, he has not indicated that he will do this. In fact, he has stated that he sees this as an issue for congress to act upon. Others have pointed out that between Health and Human Services and the Justice Department, it could be reclassified without congressional approval. At this point, most people think the likelihood of action before the end of the current term is minimal.