Why Is Marijuana A Schedule 1 Drug In The United States?

by Brad P
Why is cannabis a schedule 1 substance? Photo by ElevenPhotographs on Unsplash

With more and more states legalizing cannabis for recreational use and most states allow some form of medical use, you might be surprised to find that cannabis is still considered a Schedule 1 drug by the federal government. But, what does that really mean and why is marijuana still considered a Schedule 1 drug?

Sit back, get comfortable, and if you’re in a legal market, grab a bowl while we break it down the scheduling status, DEA, and cannabis history in the U.S. for you.

What is a drug schedule? 

While your drug schedule might tell you when it’s time to light up, the federal government has other ideas. In 1970, under the Nixon administration, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The CSA placed all substances which were currently regulated by the U.S. government into one of five schedules. According to the feds, placement is based upon the substance’s medical use, the potential for abuse, and safety or likelihood of addiction, with Schedule 5 being the least likely for abuse with the most medical potential.

What does Schedule 1 mean?

So if Schedule 5 is the ‘safest’ tier, then what does that mean for Schedule 1? Well, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Schedule I drugs “have a high potential for abuse and the potential to create severe psychological and/or physical dependence” with little to no medical value. To give you a better idea, here’s a breakdown of some of the drugs found in each schedule;

Schedule 1: marijuana, heroin, LSD, ecstasy, and magic mushrooms

Schedule 2: cocaine, meth, oxycodone, Adderall, Ritalin, and Vicodin

Schedule 3: Tylenol with codeine, ketamine, anabolic steroids, and testosterone

Schedule 4: Xanax, Soma, Darvocet, Valium, and Ambien

Schedule 5: Robitussin AC, Lomotil, Motofen, Lyrica, and Parepectolin

So, do the feds believe that weed is more dangerous than cocaine and meth? Not necessarily, their alleged distinction is that Schedule 1 drugs are more likely to run the risk of abuse, which outweighs any minimal medical use, while Schedule 2 drugs are considered to have medical value but still need to be controlled due to community risk for addiction/abuse.

Who decides what schedule drugs are?

The DEA and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are the primary entities that determine drug scheduling, and whether drugs need to be scheduled at all. While the DEA usually evaluates the initial petitions for scheduling or re-scheduling, they send their info over to the HHS for a complete scientific and medical analysis. The HHS decision is binding for the DEA, and HHS could even unilaterally legalize cannabis if they chose to if their analysis found potential for medical use and/or low risk to the community.

Why is cannabis still considered a schedule 1 drug?

Although the DEA has been petitioned many times since the 1970s to reclassify cannabis, they have consistently maintained its Schedule 1 status due to ‘insufficient scientific evidence of its medical value’. The agency says that scientific evidence available for cannabis doesn’t pass the threshold required by the DEA to acknowledge a drug’s potential as medicine.  There have definitely been studies that show cannabis has medical benefits, particularly for pain, muscle stiffness, and nausea. But unfortunately, these studies haven’t been large enough to meet the DEA or FDA requirements to prove a drug has medical value.

So, why haven’t we created a large-scale clinical trial for cannabis yet? Because cannabis is classified as Schedule 1, the DEA restricts how much cannabis can go to research. To obtain legal cannabis supplies for studies researchers have to get their studies approved by various government agencies, including HHS, the FDA, and the DEA. Currently, there is one government-controlled research center in Mississippi that has access to legal cannabis for research. This cannabis has been found to have a very low THC percentage, below 10%, and some in the industry argue that this research isn’t going to be enough to prove cannabis’s efficacy.

The DEA and FDA are very slow to change. The FDA still has not published any regulations for CBD which was formally legalized following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill. So, as you can see, cannabis advocates and clinical researchers are stuck in a bit of a loop as there needs to be a certain level of scientific research that proves marijuana has medical value, but the federal government’s restrictions make it nearly impossible to conduct that research.

How can we ‘reschedule’ weed?

Access to funding and supplies for research would definitely bring us a lot closer to rescheduling cannabis, although sweeping action through Congress could also play a role. While Congress has never removed a drug from scheduling, it has added drugs to the list including GHB, which has been referred to as the ‘date rape drug’. If they can add drugs, they should be able to remove or reschedule them right? In fact, the House passed the MORE Act, which would decriminalize cannabis. However, the Act’s second iteration now must pass through the Senate. The fact that it is even a conversation among Congress is huge progress for cannabis legalization.

As for research, the DEA is showing a little more flexibility in recent years, allowing more cannabis to be grown for research and allowing more people to grow legally besides just that one government facility in Mississippi. These changes could significantly open up research access to cannabis — including potentially higher-quality marijuana and different strains of the drug, which the federal government doesn’t currently research. The effects of the changes remain to be seen, but with Congress’s new outlook on cannabis, things are looking more hopeful than they ever have.

Is CBD a Schedule 1 drug?

If cannabis is a schedule 1 drug, what about CBD? Like most things in the federal government, it’s complicated. In 2014, the Hemp Farming Bill created a framework for the legal cultivation of industrial hemp without requiring farmers to get a permit from the DEA. Four years later, the Hemp Farming Act of 2018 which was signed into law by President Donald Trump in November 2018, introduced a new legal channel through which certain types of CBD can be considered legal by removing industrial hemp plants from their earlier status as a controlled substance and shifting oversight from the DEA to the FDA. 

This has put CBD into an interesting legal position, leading to confusion about whether CBD oil is a federally restricted Schedule I substance or is totally legal. As far as the feds are concerned, legality depends on what type of plant the CBD comes from, as well as how much THC is present in both the original plant and the final product. Under federal law, CBD that comes from cannabis plants with more than .3% THC is considered illegal. So, if the cannabis plant has more than .3% THC, then all substances derived from it — including any CBD extracted from the plant — are considered by the DEA to be a federally restricted Schedule I substance.

Is weed delivery legal?

While cannabis is still considered a restricted, Schedule 1 drug by the federal government, both President Obama and President Trump acknowledged states’ rights to legalize and regulate cannabis consumption without interference from federal agencies. Basically, weed delivery services and dispensaries have a complicated path when it comes to filing federal taxes, but they aren’t at any risk of being shut down by the feds and are completely legal at a state and local level.

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