What would descheduling cannabis mean? And other questions on federal cannabis law, answered.


Right now, cannabis is legal only in certain states. At the federal level, it remains illegal. But when President Biden pardoned thousands of American citizens convicted of cannabis crimes in October of this year, he also asked the secretary of Health and Human Services and the U.S. attorney general to reevaluate how cannabis is scheduled under federal law. Since then, there’s been a lot of talk about “rescheduling” or “descheduling” the drug.

Rescheduling and descheduling are words long held in the lexicon of experienced cannabis consumers. But for those new to cannabis and US drug law, they probably sound like jibberish. What’s the difference between rescheduling and descheduling? Would descheduling make cannabis legal?

Allow us to explain.

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What does it mean that cannabis is currently a Schedule I drug?

In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act went into action. Cannabis was classified as Schedule I. This means that it is a drug with no accepted medical use and has a high risk of abuse. Other substances that are Schedule I include heroin, LSD, ecstasy, methaqualone (Quaaludes), peyote, and psilocybin mushrooms.

The Schedule I classification for marijuana is a significant issue for the growth of the cannabis industry. Rescheduling cannabis to even Schedule II would allow cannabis research and development to take place more easily.

The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has long argued that cannabis should stay on the Schedule I list. Other agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) say that cannabis should get descheduled or rescheduled to Schedule II or Schedule III due to its medical benefits.

And then, there’s the argument that it should be removed from the jurisdiction of the Controlled Substances Act altogether. This is what people are referencing when you hear the word “descheduling.”

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What would descheduling cannabis mean?

In 2018, the US Farm Bill removed cannabis products containing less than 0.3 percent THC from the jurisdiction of the Controlled Substances Act, thereby descheduling most hemp and CBD products. This act essentially made CBD and hemp products legal for possession, cultivaiton, and sale throughout the US.

If cannabis were to be descheduled, this is what would happen with all cannabis products. Essentially, descheduling cannabis would make it a legal drug.

Descheduling, rescheduling, and decriminalization: What’s the difference?

We’ve gone over cannabis rescheduling and descheduling. Descheduling cannabis refers to the process of removing cannabis from the list of controlled substances. The process can happen either through legislation or through the executive branch.

Rescheduling cannabis means that it is moved from a Schedule I to a lower schedule. Rescheduling could make cannabis able to be prescribed or bought over the counter, but it would still be controlled by the FDA.

But what about decriminalization?

Another buzzword you might be hearing right now, cannabis decriminalization means that it is no longer a criminal offense to possess certain amounts of it. When cannabis is decriminalized, possessing a certain amount of cannabis is considered a civil offense with minor fines.

Many states where cannabis remains illegal contain cities or counties that have decriminalized cannabis, such as Austin, Texas.

For cannabis activists, decriminalization would be nice, but descheduling is ideal. This would essentially create a nationwide recreational cannabis industry. Cannabis would be treated much like alcohol and tobacco are now.

Descheduling would also make research on the drug much easier. Treating cannabis as a crop rather than a medicinal substance lets researchers in fields such as horticulture and plant genetics research the plant. The hope of cannabis activists is that they could then create newer and better strains for the medical industry, and make the recreational market safer.

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In conclusion

Many people believe the future of cannabis in the United States is headed toward full legalization. It’s just a matter of how. So far, 37 states have legalized medical marijuana, and 21 states have legalized the recreational use of cannabis. It may be that cannabis legalization starts with rescheduling, and then decriminalization and, eventually, descheduling may follow.

But the legalization of cannabis is a hotly debated topic, with many people on both sides of the issue. Some people advocate for legalization because they believe that it will reduce crime rates and increase tax revenue. Others argue that legalizing it would lead to an increase in crime rates and addiction.

At the federal level, there have been many attempts to legalize or deschedule cannabis. With the 2022 election finished, several pieces of legislation are up in the air. President Biden’s announcement of pardons for federal cannabis charges has also set the stage for new federal moves toward legalization.

If you want to get involved in cannabis rescheduling, descheduling, or decriminalization, make sure to educate yourself on the issues. Join local or state activism groups. Call or email your representatives. And at the local level, you can push for decriminalization in your city.

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