Big changes could be coming to cannabis. Here’s the latest
The federal government has been talking about cannabis a lot lately. After the majority of states legalized marijuana in some way individually, the Schedule I narcotic may finally be reclassified. But what exactly does that mean—and how will consumers be affected?
The short answer is: we don’t entirely know for sure. But what we do know is that the federal government has admitted that cannabis does indeed have therapeutic potential and may not be as dangerous as previously considered.
Here’s the TLDR.
The current cannabis status quo
Right now, the federal government considers cannabis to be a Schedule I narcotic. This is a substance defined as having no medicinal value and a high risk of abuse. Other Schedule I drugs include heroin, MDMA, and LSD.
President Joe Biden previously tasked his administration with looking into the current status of cannabis. In August, it was announced that two federal agencies, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Health and Human Services Department (HHS), recommended the plant be moved to Schedule III alongside ketamine, Tylenol with codeine, and a number of other drugs.
Just as no one should be in a federal prison solely due to the use or possession of marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either.
I continue to urge Governors to do the same with state offenses and applaud those who have since taken action.
— President Biden (@POTUS) December 22, 2023
Last week, the government released an unredacted version of the review previously submitted to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Journalist Matt Zorn obtained the documents using the Freedom of Information Act. The DEA has the ultimate authority on the status of cannabis; they’re currently looking into the data sent over by the FDA and HHS and conducting their own investigation.
Government review shines light on cannabis plant safety
The hefty 252-page report conducted by the HHS and FDA was quite revealing, allowing the general public an inside glimpse on how the healthcare community and government agencies perceive the plant. Here are some of the highlights:
For the first time, the federal government is admitting cannabis has medicinal value. They touted its ability to ease pain, and also called out the potential for the plant to ease nausea as well as Crohn’s symptoms.
“The largest evidence base for effectiveness exists for marijuana use within the pain indication (in particular, neuropathic pain),” the review stated.
The review authors also admitted the “likelihood of serious outcomes is low” for people consuming cannabis. While psychological dependence is believed to be more likely than physical dependence, the government doesn’t seem to think it’s as serious as other illicit drugs based on the report.
Unfortunately, the review was not a slam dunk on other medicinal use cases. In particular, the authors wrote that there is inconclusive evidence that cannabis can help treat things like epilepsy and PTSD. However, the FDA approved a cannabis-based epilepsy drug called Epidiolex in 2018, showing there’s still contradicting opinions of cannabis between agencies.
The authors did point to the success of medical cannabis programs across the country, noting more doctors are familiar with the plant than ever before. The ability of states to develop and regulate these programs is evidence that reform can work.
The review concluded that cannabis meets the criteria for Schedule III drugs according to the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). But if the DEA agrees, does that mean weed is legal? Not exactly.
Is rescheduling cannabis legalization?
Rescheduling of cannabis would not necessarily mean cannabis is legal nationwide. For this to happen, the plant would need to be removed from the CSA list—aka descheduled. If this were to occur, cannabis would be regulated like alcohol and tobacco instead of a prescription drug.
The rescheduling vs. descheduling debate has ignited a firestorm within the cannabis community. Some argue that moving cannabis to Schedule III would benefit the industry, removing undue tax burdens, promoting banking access, and removing other detrimental restrictions.
Others maintain that since Schedule III substances are still regulated by the FDA that the move would simply allow the pharmaceutical industry to move in on the marijuana market. It can also be assumed that adult-use cannabis may not be protected under Schedule III, since the plant would be seen as a prescription drug in the eyes of the feds.
What happens next?
The DEA is slowly working on its internal review of cannabis, using the HHS and FDA report as evidence. It could be days, weeks, or even months before any decisions are made. However, Washington insiders believe the upcoming election will factor into the timing.
If the DEA does decide to reschedule or deschedule, there will be a public comment period. Once this ends, a final round of reviews will be conducted.
So what would a move to Schedule III actually look like if it were to occur? That part remains to be seen. According to former FDA official Howard Sklamberg, not much would change. Sklamberg, who previously predicted the Schedule III recommendation, believes the move will be made sooner than later.
“DEA has never disagreed with an HHS recommendation,” Sklamberg recently told Politico, adding concerns over increased enforcement of recreational cannabis consumers is illogical.
“If you’re going to launch an enforcement initiative against cannabis, why would you start off with saying, ‘Oh, by the way, it’s less of a risk than we thought,’” he said.
The bottom line: it’s only a matter of time before the DEA makes its decision but it seems all too certain that change is ahead for the cannabis space.
With reform spreading around the country, more Americans in favor of legalization than ever before, and over 30,000 scientific reviews of the plant conducted in the last decade, it seems likely that the federal government will soften its stance. For now, cannabis consumers wait with baited breath and cherried joints.