In-Depth: Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL) introduced this bill to reschedule marijuana from a schedule I controlled substance to a schedule III controlled substance, thereby allowing further research on the substance:
“As marijuana is legalized for medical and recreational use across the United States, it is important that we study the effects of the substance and the potential impacts it can have on various populations. By rescheduling marijuana from a schedule I controlled substance to a schedule III controlled substance, the opportunities for research and study are drastically expanded. With this rescheduling, researchers can now access federal funds to research this substance and determine its medical value. We hear every day about the positive health benefits of marijuana. Whether it’s young children with seizure disorders, or veterans suffering from chronic pain, it is clear that there are medical benefits to marijuana and I think it’s time we remove the bureaucratic red tape that prevents us from thoroughly studying this substance.”
In a July 2, 2017, press release, Mission Health President and CEO Ronald Paulus, MD, MBA argued that marijuana’s schedule I designation prevents rigorous research into its potential pros and cons:
“The most absurd aspect of current marijuana policy is its DEA classification as a Schedule 1 drug, defined as having no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Other Schedule 1 drugs include LSD and heroin. I believe that drugs should be classified based upon science, not emotion. Schedule 1 classification significantly impairs the ability to do rigorous research, which prevents the true pros and cons of medical marijuana from being discerned."
In its May 30, 2019 decision in Washington et al. v. Barr et al., the 2nd Circuit told the DEA to “promptly” reconsider its classification of cannabis as a schedule I drug. In the case, plaintiffs — including medical marijuana patients — told the court that the DEA’s refusal to reschedule cannabis damaged their health and the agency should remove cannabis from schedule I.
While the 2nd Circuit agreed with an earlier federal court ruling that not all administrative avenues to changing marijuana’s status have been exhausted, the 2nd Circuit also noted that there was significant evidence showing marijuana relieved patient suffering, and that the DEA had been “dilatory” in its consideration of cannabis’ status. Additionally, the 2nd Circuit noted that reclassifying drugs through administrative paths takes an average of nine years — an intolerably long time when health and suffering are at stake. In their ruling, the 2nd Circuit’s judges observed, “Plaintiffs should not be required to live indefinitely with uncertainty about their access to allegedly life-saving medication.”
Ultimately, while the 2nd Circuit declined to order the DEA to reconsider marijuana’s status, it kept the option open in case of agency inaction. The judges wrote:
“We think it possible that future action by us may become appropriate here. Plaintiffs have not asked for – and we do not even consider issuing – a writ of mandamus to force the DEA to act. But we exercise our discretion to keep jurisdiction of the case in this panel, to take whatever action may become appropriate if Plaintiffs seek administrative review and the DEA fails to act promptly.”
In 2017, Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) argued that rescheduling marijuana is “neither necessary nor desirable,” as it wouldn’t allow more cannabis-based medicines. SAM also contended that marijuana’s schedule I status doesn’t close off all research:
“[R]escheduling marijuana is neither necessary, nor desirable... Rescheduling marijuana would do nothing to allow more cannabis-based medicines. Cocaine is Schedule II today and is not allowed in a widespread fashion. Rescheduling would simply be a symbolic victory for advocates who want to legalize marijuana… The mere act of placing herbal marijuana in Schedule II would not make it available to patients or address the conflict between state and federal law... Rescheduling is not necessary to make marijuana products available for research... Schedule I status does not prevent a product from being tested and researched for potential medical use. Schedule I research certainly does go forward."
This legislation has one cosponsor, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL). Rep Gaetz is a vocal supporter of rescheduling cannabis to encourage research.
In addition to this piece of legislation, the Expanding Cannabis Research and Information Act (H.R.4322 / S.2400), sponsored by Rep. Donna Shalala (D-FL) in the House and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) in the Senate, would also reschedule marijuana from schedule I to schedule III. Unlike this bill, that bill also contains additional language requiring federal agencies to develop research programs and designate “Centers of Excellence in Cannabis Research.” Rep. Gaetz is a cosponsor of the House version of the Expanding Cannabis Research and Information Act.
Of Note: The federal government has long classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug. This lumps it in with heroin and other substances that are deemed to have no medical benefit and a high abuse potential.
Marijuana’s schedule I designation has severely restricted federal research into its health effects. A schedule III designation would remove many barriers. Most significantly, it would remove a current barrier to funding, as federal government funds can’t be used to fund most studies of schedule I drugs. If marijuana were reclassified as a schedule III substance, federal funds would become available to support research projects on cannabis and its medical and therapeutic applications. Additionally, researchers wouldn’t have to deal with the regulatory hurdles associated with studying a schedule I substance.
Rescheduling marijuana could also have major positive impacts for the legal cannabis industry. Many financial and regulatory problems facing the legal marijuana industry, such as its difficulty accessing bank services and inability to obtain tax deductions and other subsidies, are related to the fact that marijuana businesses traffick a schedule I drug. If marijuana were rescheduled down to level III, cannabis businesses would become eligible for a number of federal tax deductions, such as the ability to deduct business expenses from taxes. Under current law, anyone “trafficking in controlled substances” in schedule I or II is ineligible for federal tax deductions.
In early 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) called for whole-plant marijuana and cannabis resin to be removed from Schedule IV — the most restrictive category, reserved for those substances seen as particularly harmful and with limited medical benefits — of a 1961 drug convention signed by countries around the world in favor of keeping them in Schedule of the treaty (before, they were dual-designated in Schedules I and IV). The WHO also called for delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and its isomers’ removal from a separate 1971 drug treaty in favor of adding it to Schedule I of the 1961 convention.
Additionally, the WHO moved to make clear that cannabidiol and CBD-focused preparations containing no more than 0.2 percent THC are "not under international control" at all. CBD wasn’t scheduled under the international conventions to begin with, but the WHO’s recommendation on this was intended to make this clear. Finally, the WHO called for removing cannabis extracts and tinctures from Schedule I of the 1961 treaty, and for adding compounded pharmaceutical preparations containing THC to Schedule III of the convention.
Although the WHO’s changes have limited practical effects, Forbes contributor Tom Angell argues that “their political implications are hard to overstate.” He argues that “taken together, [the] recommendations, if adopted, would represent a formal recognition that the world's governing bodies have effectively been wrong about marijuana's harms and therapeutic benefits for decades.”
When the FDA solicited public comments on marijuana rescheduling in March 2019, over 1,000 people submitted comments to the agency’s page in a matter of days. The comments overwhelmingly endorsed cannabis reclassification, but provided a broad range of reasons for their position. Some comments came from patients who preferred marijuana over pharmaceuticals; others came from people who pointed out that marijuana isn’t as harmful as legal substances, such as alcohol and tobacco; and some argued that prohibition infringes on civil liberties. Veterans also commented to say that cannabis has helped treat service-related conditions, such as PTSD and chronic pain.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / Nastasic)