DEA to reconsider marijuana's federal status

The US Drug Enforcement Agency announced this week that it would reach a decision in the first half of 2016 as to whether to downgrade marijuana from a Schedule I controlled substance to Schedule II.

Marina Riker/AP/File
In this Feb. 17, 2016 photo, plants grow at the home of Jeremy Nickle, in his backyard in Honolulu, Hawaii. Nickel, who owns Hawaiian Holy Smokes and is applying for a dispensary, grows a variety of strains and has a medical marijuana card. Those wanting to open medical marijuana dispensaries in Hawaii face unique obstacles in a state of islands separated by federal waters.

The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announced in a letter to lawmakers this week that it intends to make a decision on the federal status of marijuana within the first half of 2016.

The drug currently sits on the Controlled Substances Act as a Schedule I item, meaning it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”, and can trigger “potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.”

There have been growing calls for a reconsideration of marijuana’s federal status, as four states and the District of Columbia have already legalized its recreational use, and the Department of Justice ruled that prosecutors should not enforce federal laws except under exceptional circumstances.

“Reclassifying cannabis will make scientific research easier and will send a strong signal that the U.S. government is finally ready to acknowledge that marijuana has medical value,” said Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority, an advocacy group, reported The Washington Times.

Indeed, some observers argue that marijuana’s current classification – putting it on a par with heroin, LSD and ecstasy – is increasingly out of step with scientific research and public opinion, quite apart from the discrepancy between federal and state law.

Hopes that the DEA will reschedule marijuana may be tempered by the fact that the organization has moved a Schedule I drug to Schedule II only five times in its 40-year history, and three petitions to reschedule marijuana have already been denied, as a Brookings paper reports.

In that same paper, however, authors John Hudak and Grace Wallack counsel against blurring the lines between the move to reschedule marijuana, and the debate over full legalization.

Rescheduling will not suddenly legalize marijuana,” write Dr. Hudak and Ms. Wallack. “It would not even solve the policy disjunction that exists between states and the federal government on the question of marijuana legality – or even value. Nor does rescheduling mean that medical marijuana will line the shelves of commercial or hospital pharmacies.”

The status of this drug is such a long-standing, emotive issue that it may be hard to separate a decision over its rescheduling from the wider debate, especially as more states follow the example of Colorado and Washington, the first to legalize the drug’s recreational use in 2012.

While some analysts see an inevitable loosening of laws governing marijuana, there are worries over the implications, as a Monitor editorial opined:

“'Big Marijuana,' which may become akin to Big Tobacco or Big Liquor, could also use its corporate profits to drive up demand for a drug among teens,” wrote the Monitor’s editorial board. “And in a possible case of 'regulatory capture,' the big firms could use their financial clout to manipulate elected leaders to weaken curbs on pot sales.”

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