Marijuana should not be an illegal drug

The federal government might finally act on that obvious fact

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) received a letter from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which recommended that the agency reclassify marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule III controlled substance.  

The DEA has the final authority to schedule or reschedule a drug and the recommendation is non-binding, but observers see the move as a long-awaited advance toward justice. 

Marijuana is the most commonly used federally illegal drug in the United States; 48.2 million people, or about 18% of Americans, used it at least once in 2019.

Marijuana is gaining popularity in the United States as individual states have moved to make the drug legal. In fact, Connecticut was the most recent state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.

The plant has historically been used recreationally for its mind-altering effects, which can include enhanced senses and changes in mood. In some states, doctors can prescribe marijuana for medicinal uses such as reducing muscle spasms, pain, nausea, and vomiting.

Hardliners say cannabis may have harmful long- and short-term effects, such as paranoia and memory loss, and it can be addictive and disrupt a user’s life and relationships, but forbidding its use has not stopped Americans from accessing the substance.

Studies on the use of medical marijuana show evidence supporting its medicinal benefits. For example, it has been found to reduce muscle spasms associated with multiple sclerosis and to reduce nausea and vomiting that often result from chemotherapy.

The DEA is initiating a review of marijuana.

The letter, dated August 29th, comes ten months after the Biden administration requested “the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General to initiate the administrative process to review expeditiously how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.”

While campaigning for the presidency, Biden repeatedly promised that he would seek to reschedule marijuana.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer praised HHS as having done “the right thing” and urged the DEA to “quickly follow through on this important step to greatly reduce the harm caused by draconian marijuana laws.”

“In 2020, the people of New Jersey overwhelmingly approved recreational marijuana use and while the governor and state legislature have failed to fully abide by their dictate, it’s past time for the federal government to eliminate barriers that hinder state-authorized cannabis businesses and cause citizens to lose respect for the law,” said Lisa McCormick, a New Jersey civil rights activist who previously declared that cannabis should be subject to the same regulatory standards that apply to alcohol and tobacco.

McCormick has been critical of Governor Phil Murphy, who enacted 20-year prison sentences for marijuana possession after residents voted for legalization in the same law that allowed corporate dealers to peddle the substance.

“The criminalization of and prohibition against cannabis continues to irreparably damage lives and communities throughout the country, so I am thrilled about the proposed scheduling reform,” said McCormick. “I am concerned that this will not resolve the conflict between federal law and the laws of 38 states that allow for medical marijuana and 23 states that permit recreational use.”

A top official at the Department of Health and Human Services wrote Drug Enforcement Administration head Anne Milgram calling for marijuana to be reclassified as a Schedule III drug under the Controlled Substances Act, according to a letter dated Aug. 29.

A DEA spokesperson confirmed the department had received the letter with HHS’s recommendation. With final authority to reschedule a drug, DEA will now initiate its own review, the spokesperson said.

Reclassification is a step short of legalizing the drug entirely, but it would mark a critical shift away from marijuana’s status as a Schedule I substance, which includes drugs with high risk of abuse, like heroin, LSD and ecstasy. Schedule III substances, such as ketamine, are seen as less dangerous and can be obtained legally with a prescription.

It could also give President Joe Biden an accomplishment to point to ahead of next year’s election that would be an acknowledgment that marijuana has legitimate uses.

Biden rolled out new initiatives focused on easing penalties associated with marijuana use in October, pardoning all prior federal offenses of simple possession and urging governors to do the same.

Its current status as a Schedule I substance indicates a high potential for abuse with no accepted medical use, along with a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision. Yet that conflicts with many states’ rules that allow the drug to be used recreationally and prescribed for treatment of everything from glaucoma to anxiety.

Moving the drug to Schedule III would be the most significant federal cannabis reform in modern history, said Edward Conklin, executive director of the US Cannabis Council.

“Cannabis should have never been scheduled alongside heroin and placed at the center of our nation’s destructive drug war,” Conklin said. “Thankfully that era is coming to a close and is being replaced by a modern and scientific approach to regulating this plant.”

Rescheduling wouldn’t give the industry a comprehensive regulatory framework. The biggest impact would be to give beleaguered cannabis companies a tax break and make research on the drug easier. Prior restrictions meant that cannabis companies couldn’t take the same kind of tax deductions as most companies, and its Schedule I designation meant it was hard even for academics to study the drug.

Extensive Review
HHS’s recommendation was based on an extensive Food and Drug Administration review of marijuana’s classification, Assistant Secretary for Health Rachel Levine said in the letter to DEA. The FDA considered eight factors that determine the control status of a substance and recommended that marijuana be placed in the Schedule III category. The National Institute on Drug Abuse agreed with the FDA’s recommendation, Levine said.

An HHS spokesperson said the department’s “comprehensive scientific evaluation” was completed in less than 11 months in an effort to respond quickly to the president’s directive.

“It’s a huge day for the cannabis industry,” said Bryan Barash, co-chair of the Coalition for Cannabis Scheduling Reform, an advocacy group, and deputy general counsel of Dutchie, a platform for cannabis commerce. “We would just hope that the federal government follows through on their recommendation.”

Some cannabis industry advocates said the recommended re-scheduling doesn’t go far enough.

The move would do “nothing to align federal law” with the states, which each have their own laws to regulate it, said National Cannabis Industry Association CEO Aaron Smith in an emailed statement. “The only way to fully resolve the myriad of issues stemming from the federal conflict with state law is to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and regulate the product in a manner similar to alcohol,” he said.

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