The classification of cannabis has long been a topic of controversy and debate. Currently, cannabis is classified as a Schedule 1 substance in the United States alongside drugs like heroin, LSD, crystal meth, and ecstasy (a bit hard to believe, but true). Schedule 1 suggests that the federal government and DEA believe marijuana has a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use despite growing research to the contrary.
With any luck, change is afoot. On August 29th, 2023, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) requested that the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reschedule marijuana to a less restrictive Schedule 3 classification. If the DEA agrees that cannabis indeed has medicinal benefits, we may finally see marijuana legitimized as a therapeutic medical solution for a wide range of diseases and disorders.
Current Classification of Cannabis
As we mentioned above, cannabis is classified as a Schedule 1 substance under the Controlled Substances Act. This classification imposes severe restrictions on its cultivation, processing, sales, and research. Despite the growing acceptance and legalization of cannabis for medical and recreational use in many states, the federal classification remains unchanged.
However, if the DEA accepts the HHS’ proposal to reschedule, the cannabis industry could be given some sorely needed financial relief.
Benefits of Reclassifying Cannabis to Schedule 3
Although marijuana legalization advocates may feel rescheduling the plant isn’t enough progress to reverse decades of prohibition, there are benefits in reclassifying cannabis from a Schedule 1 to a Schedule 3 substance. Several of these advantages include:
- Expanded Research Opportunities: Rescheduling cannabis to Schedule 3 would make it easier for researchers to conduct studies on its potential therapeutic benefits. Currently, the Schedule 1 classification makes it difficult to obtain the necessary permissions and funding for extensive research. Rescheduling would open up possibilities for scientists and government agencies to explore its medical applications in a more comprehensive manner.
- Medical Accessibility: Schedule 3 substances are subject to less stringent regulation compared to those classified as Schedule 1. This change would make it easier for patients to access cannabis-based medications, for various medical conditions. It could streamline the production, distribution, and prescription processes, ultimately increasing accessibility for patients who could benefit from marijuana’s many cannabinoids and terpenes.
- Economic Opportunities: Rescheduling cannabis to Schedule 3 will have significant economic benefits as well. For starters, cannabis operations will no longer be seen by the federal government as “drug traffickers.” As such, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Code 280E would no longer apply and business owners could apply for typical tax deductions most companies enjoy. And let’s not forget, the cannabis industry could generate substantial tax revenue, create jobs, and stimulate economic growth in regions where it is legalized.
- Reduced Stigma: The current Schedule 1 classification contributes to the stigma surrounding cannabis use. Rescheduling to Schedule 3 would help destigmatize cannabis by acknowledging its medicinal value. This opens the door socially and professionally for more open discussions and increased research funding.
Whether you operate a commercial grow facility, manufacturing operation, or dispensary — rescheduling cannabis brings us closer to country-wide reform.
Potential Disadvantages of Rescheduling vs. Legalizing Cannabis
For all the positive effects rescheduling would have on the industry, there are some clear drawbacks. Most of these challenges would be mitigated if cannabis were descheduled (removed from the Controlled Substance Act) and legalized. As it stands, the following are a few of the primary arguments being expostulated by legalization advocates.
- Limited Regulation: While rescheduling cannabis to Schedule 3 would reduce some restrictions, it could also result in limited regulation. This could potentially lead to issues such as inconsistent product quality, unreliable potency, and lack of standardized dosing guidelines. Striking the balance between accessibility and regulation would be crucial to ensure patient safety and product consistency.
- Pharmaceutical Dominance: Rescheduling cannabis to Schedule 3 could pave the way for pharmaceutical companies to dominate the market. They may expand their development of additional, synthetic cannabinoid medications like Marinol. This could limit patient access to natural, whole-plant cannabis, which some argue has a broader range of therapeutic benefits due to the entourage effect.
- Interstate Commerce Challenges: The rescheduling of cannabis to Schedule 3 would create complex challenges regarding interstate commerce. While some states have legalized cannabis, it remains illegal at the federal level. Rescheduling may create ambiguous legal frameworks and hinder the development of a seamless nationwide cannabis industry.
In the meantime, the benefits outweigh the issues that accompany rescheduling cannabis out of Schedule 1 and into Schedule 3.
Considerations for Policy Makers
When deliberating the possibility of rescheduling cannabis, our policymakers and legislative branch must consider the following:
- Commit to an Evidence-Based Approach: Policy decisions should be based on rigorous scientific evidence regarding the therapeutic benefits and potential risks of cannabis use. Collaborative research efforts among various scientists and doctors would aid in this effort. Domestic and international impacts should be taken into consideration.
- Public Health and Safety: The well-being of the community and potential patients should be a top consideration. Regulations should prioritize the safe use of cannabis, ensuring product quality, appropriate dosing, and responsible consumption. Robust monitoring and reporting systems need to be in place to track adverse effects and address any emerging public health concerns.
- Equitable Access: New policies and regulations should also aim to ensure fair access to patients regardless of status, race, or income. This helps keep the black market at bay in smaller communities and ensures the plant’s benefits can be administered to anyone who might benefit. Measures should be in place to prevent monopolization by “big cannabis” or “Big Pharma” to ensure that small-scale and craft cultivators, manufacturers, and dispensaries have opportunities to thrive.
Next Steps for Rescheduling Cannabis
Rescheduling cannabis to Schedule 3 isn’t a done deal just yet. However, the cannabis industry and its community scored a significant “win” by jumping the first hurdle. The DEA states on its website that to start the discussion surrounding rescheduling a substance, the following must happen:
Proceedings to add, delete, or change the schedule of a drug or other substance may be initiated by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), or by petition from any interested party.https://www.dea.gov/drug-information/csa Retrieved 9/13/2023
Along with their recommendation, the HHS must provide adequate research documentation that reasonably proves the medicinal benefits of marijuana. From there, the DEA usually conducts its own research (often delegated to the FDA) before making a final determination.
It’s time for cannabis to break free of prohibition. Although many marijuana enthusiasts feel that the HHS’ recommendation is a solid step in the right direction, it’s only the next step toward legalization and state-led regulation.