Last week, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced it will consider rescheduling marijuana sometime in 2016. The DEA enforces the federal Controlled Substances Act, which classifies drugs into five different schedules based on the drug’s danger. Marijuana has long been classified as a Schedule I controlled substance, which means the government believes it has a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical application, and that there is a lack of accepted safety for its use under medical supervision. Other Schedule I drugs include LSD and Heroin. The DEA has the legal authority to reschedule substances and for years marijuana advocates have urged it to move marijuana to a less restrictive Schedule or to remove it from scheduling altogether.
The DEA’s memo comes in response to a 2015 letter from Senator Elizabeth Warren and other Democratic senators, urging the federal government to allow more research into the benefits of medical marijuana. In its response memo, the DEA said it will consider a Food and Drug Administration recommendation on whether it should reschedule marijuana. The DEA did not disclose what the FDA recommended, only that it has received a recommendation.
The DEA conceded it “understands the widespread interest in the prompt resolution of these petitions [to reschedule marijuana] and hopes to release its determination in the first half of 2016.” The DEA has previously routinely denied any such rescheduling.
In a television interview with MSNBC last week, our own Hilary Bricken discussed the impact rescheduling might have on the cannabis industry, along with the significance for cannabis of the upcoming election. First, rescheduling cannabis could allow for more research on its medical benefits and could also result in mitigating federal law penalties for its use. Second, it could allow the FDA to get involved in regulating marijuana and it might also allow doctors to prescribe it, rather than simply authorizing or suggesting patient use.
But Hilary also talked about how even though this letter may indicate the DEA is softening its stance on marijuana, a new President could undo all of it. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law and the Department of Justice may alter how it enforces federal law, no matter what sort of letter the DEA issues. Bernie Sanders has introduced a bill to remove marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act and Hillary Clinton favors reforming federal marijuana law and rescheduling marijuana. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz seem to be saying that they will let the states decide, but neither has said much at all favorable regarding federal enforcement changes.
The DEA letter could be the next step for nationwide cannabis reform or it could be worth no more than the paper on which it is printed. We will report back on the DEA’s decision.