DEA rejects marijuana reclassification, despite states' shifting acceptance

The US Drug Enforcement Administration said marijuana would remain in the restrictive Schedule I on Thursday, but signaled support for expanding medical research.

Andy Nelson/The Register-Guard/AP/File
Medical marijuana grows at Jeff Smith's and Cassie Heckenkamp's property along the McKenzie River east of Springfield, Ore., in June. The US Drug Enforcement Administration said Thursday that marijuana would remain in the most restrictive federal category of drugs, despite growing public support for legalization.

Marijuana will remain in the most restrictive federal category for drugs, the US Drug Enforcement Administration said Thursday, curbing the hopes of advocates who say broader public acceptance points to a need for looser regulation.

In a letter in the Federal Register, the DEA said marijuana should remain as a Schedule I drug, a class that includes drugs the regulator says have a “high potential for abuse” and “no current accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.”

The letter did open the door to more extensive research on the chemicals in marijuana that many now consider valuable in treating chronic pain. 

While the DEA isn’t budging on its longtime stance, a shift does appear to be happening across the country, as public views of marijuana evolve, and several states have decriminalized pot for both medical and recreational use.

A Gallup poll released Monday found that reported marijuana use has nearly doubled in the past three years, from 7 percent of Americans in 2013 to 13 percent today. The number of regular marijuana users now stands at 33 million, compared to 40 million tobacco users, a shift that Gallup noted could be related to changing state laws.

Marijuana advocates say the DEA should catch up. “Ultimately, the federal government ought to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act altogether in a manner similar to alcohol and tobacco,” Paul Armentano of NORML, which advocates for the drug's legalization, told NBC.

Doing so would allow states to establish their own policies to regulate marijuana without federal intrusion, he said.

But state lawmakers have also been divided on legalizing marijuana, with some traditionally liberal Eastern states taking a more cautious approach than those in the West, as the Monitor reported in May:

Political leaders in liberal Massachusetts, the state that introduced an Obamacare-like system, balk at legalizing marijuana. And Vermont, home of socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, criticized Massachusetts's marijuana initiative as too lax and killed its own fledgling pot bill.

'We in the Commonwealth would be better watching and learning from the case study of Colorado for five or six years, rather than just two,' [Republican Massachusetts state Sen. Viriato deMacedo, one of nine senators who went on a four-day fact-finding mission to Colorado] tells The Christian Science Monitor in an interview.

Another concern expressed by some lawmakers and researchers is that safety regulations might not keep pace with expanding legalization efforts. Twenty-five states, as well as the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico, now allow medical marijuana.

"But legalization is just one step to reaching many medical marijuana proponents' goal: another treatment option," the Monitor reported in February:

And safety regulations have lagged far behind the drug's state-to-state progression, leaving many patients to wrestle with questions about usage and side effects. These are issues Americans usually expect pharmacies, manufacturers, and government regulators to have answered before a legal product is sold, including how much to take, when, and how. 

The DEA's listing, which places marijuana in a category that also includes heroin, LSD, and ecstasy, is independent of state laws in Alaska, Oregon, Colorado, Washington state, and Washington, D.C., which have legalized recreational possession. Several other states, including Massachusetts, are also currently considering ballot measures on possession this fall.

The regulator also reiterated its opposition to moving marijuana to the less restrictive Schedule II on Thursday. That echoes the stance taken by the White House, which opposes marijuana legalization but has been somewhat noncommittal on whether the drug should be reclassified.

In response to calls for marijuana reform, the president's attitude has been " 'If you feel so strongly about it, and you believe there is so much public support for what it is that you're advocating, then why don't you pass legislation about it and we'll see what happens,' " White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said at a January press briefing, recalling a conversation President Obama had earlier that week. 

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