By Douglas Capraro
This week, the Drug Enforcement Administration presented a lengthy memo to lawmakers insisting that marijuana be revoked of its severe Schedule 1 status “in the first half of 2016.”
Ever since President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, marijuana has shared a Schedule 1 classification alongside such dangerous narcotics as heroin. It has even been more regulated than drugs such as cocaine and prescription opioids, which has cost the lives of more than 165,000 people since 1999. Yet in spite of the increasing number of states who have either legalized or decriminalized the drug, marijuana retains its Schedule 1 status under federal law to this day.
According to the Controlled Substances Act, a Schedule 1 drug has “no medical use and a high potential for abuse” and is one of “the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.” The classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug runs contrary to science, which proves that marijuana can save lives and that it’s even much safer than we previously thought. In addition, more than six out of 10 Americans believe that marijuana should be legalized altogether.
What makes this sudden push to reschedule marijuana especially surprising though is the fact that DEA has shot down so many similar attempts in the past.
Overall, The DEA had denied or stalled four petitions trying to reschedule marijuana or remove it from the schedules with disposition times ranging from five to more than 20 years. In one case, the DEA even overrode the recommendation of its own administrative judge. The memo that was presented this week, which had also been signed by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, comes after a recommendation in 2015 from the Food and Drug Administration about a potential reclassification.
Although they are not going to come to a decision until the end of the first half of 2016, this is a surprising move for an organization who’s been so adversarial towards similar rescheduling attempts in the past. Based on how you look at it though, the DEA’s opposition in the past may also indicate that people should not get their hopes up in case they decide to shoot down this rescheduling attempt yet again.
One group of people that are certainly ranking on the rescheduling of marijuana are medical researchers. More than any other group, researchers have been hit the hardest by marijuana’s Schedule 1 classification. This is because it is so hard to obtain permission to study a Schedule 1 drug. The time and effort required to study marijuana deters many researchers from obtaining marijuana at all, which prevents them from discovering the many potential benefits it has already been proven to have.
Not only that, but the government currently grants a monopoly on marijuana production to only one program at the University of Mississippi. According to a Brookings Institution report last year, “Because of this monopoly, research-grade drugs that meet researchers’ specifications often take years to acquire, if they are produced at all.” From 2010 to 2015, an average of only nine researchers were given access to marijuana each year. Since research demand far exceeds this level of support, many researchers have taken to studying more easily obtainable cannabinoids instead.
In addition to the legal technicalities that make marijuana so hard for researchers to obtain, colleges and universities are also hesitant to fund research. This is because they often want to avoid breaking complex federal regulations. As a result, marijuana research becomes that much harder, even if researchers are willing to endure the legal hurdles involved.
Yet whether or not marijuana becomes deregulated by the end of the first half of this year, progress is already underway. In California, for instance, a Probolsky Research poll shows that 60 percent of registered voters would favor an initiative in November to legalize marijuana for recreational use under state laws and allow government to tax its retail sales. There are also 19 other states could also vote on marijuana legalization this year. So even if the DEA does not follow up on their proposition to remove the substance from Schedule 1, 2016 is inarguably an important year for the fate of marijuana legalization in this country.