The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently announced that they would reconsider downgrading the scheduling of marijuana, which is currently a Schedule I drug- the highest level of control. Under the Controlled Substances Act, Schedule I substances have “no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse.” Other Schedule I substances include heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. To put the merits of scheduling in perspective, in 2014, over 10,500 Americans died from heroin overdoses, while there has yet to be an official agency report on annual deaths from marijuana (there was a single report of a man who consumed six times the recommended consumption amount of a “weed cookie” and jumped off a balcony- marijuana was listed as a “contributing factor” to his death). Alcohol is not a scheduled substance, but in the United States, approximately 88,000 people die per year in alcohol-related deaths.
Marijuana’s current schedule makes it extremely difficult for researchers to explore the medical benefits that cannabis may have- a potential that has already been shown in many studies. Marijuana for medical use has already been legalized in 24 states and the District of Columbia, and approval for recreational use continues to pass. There is evidence that marijuana can lower the frequency of seizures in children with epilepsy, particularly the cannabidiol (CBD) component, which does not produce the psychoactive effect of a high. Rescheduling the substance would allow for further exploration into the medical benefits for a variety of conditions.
According to the Huffington Post, the DEA previously reevaluated the scheduling in 2001 and 2006, but ultimately decided it would remain categorized as a Schedule I. A 2015 letter from Democratic Senators including Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) urged the Agency to reconsider scheduling. In February 2016, Senator Warren sent a letter to Dr. Thomas Friedan, Chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), discussing the “opioid epidemic” and highlighting the “65% increase” in “unintended opioid overdose deaths” from 2012 to 2014. In her letter, she urged the CDC to consider “medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids for pain treatment in states where it is legal.” Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced the bipartisan Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act to acknowledge marijuana’s medical use and the onus on states to determine policy.
In a letter signed by Sylvia Burwell, the Secretary of U.S. Department Health and Human Services, Michael Botticelli, Director of the Office of National Drug Control and Policy, and Chuck Rosenberg, Acting Administrator of the DEA, detailed written responses to lawmakers’ December 2015 letter are included, as well as an outline of the process for conducting research. Downgrading the status of marijuana could encourage states to reevaluate policies regarding legalization, and could lead to national and state economic advantages. The DEA intends to announce the decision by July. In the meantime, if you are in a state where it’s legal to use, enjoy your 4/20, and maybe this time the DEA won’t puff, puff, pass on this opportunity.