The DEA announced in April that it will decide whether marijuana should be rescheduled under the Controlled Substances Act within “the first half of 2016.”
The drug is currently listed under “schedule 1,” the most restrictive class of drugs controlled by federal law. The government considers cannabis, heroin, LSD, and other drugs on this list so dangerous and addictive they are banned for any use, including medical.
Reformers have pushed for decades to move marijuana to a lower schedule so it can be better researched and made available for medical use across the country. More than two dozen states have legalized the drug as medicine under their laws, while four have made it legal for any adult use, but because of its listing on schedule 1, the federal government could force those states to prohibit it again.
Facilitating research into marijuana’s benefits
Moving marijuana to schedule 2, as many reformers have suggested, would protect states that legalize it and make it easier for scientists to study its benefits. But only Congress and the DEA can make that change.
Congress has repeatedly balked at doing so, and the DEA has even less impetus to act. A letter announcing the agency’s plan to decide soon didn’t say which way it might rule, but if history is any guide, rescheduling is extremely unlikely.
The letter was a response to a request by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and seven other senators who pushed the Obama administration to reclassify cannabis. That request was made in a 2015 letter to the DEA.
DEA has repeatedly opposed rescheduling cannabis
Legalization advocates have long pushed the DEA to reschedule marijuana, but the agency has repeatedly refused. President Barack Obama has demurred on the issue, saying the decision should lie with Congress, not the DEA or Department of Justice.
“(The) DEA understands the widespread interest in the prompt resolution to these petitions and hopes to release its determination in the first half of 2016,” the agency said in its letter.
DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg, who was appointed last year following a massive agency scandal, used the letter to explain the government’s control of the only federally legal marijuana supply, grown at the University of Mississippi for highly restricted research.
Awaiting a recommendation from the FDA
The final decision will rest in part on a recommendation from the FDA, which has reviewed medical evidence regarding the drug and sent its conclusions to the DEA, Rosenberg said. He didn’t tell the senators what the FDA recommended.
But he said the DEA would consider providing more federal cannabis to scientists if research needs were to exceed the supply in Mississippi. That might only mean a few new growers, not rescheduling.
Most recently in 2001 and 2006, the DEA rejected petitions to reclassify the substance. But neither of those requests came from U.S. senators.
The senators behind the new request, with the exception of Warren, have sponsored a bill that would make it much harder for federal agencies to block state-level legalization of marijuana. The legislation would also encourage more research.
“Almost half the states in the country have medical cannabis laws, and major groups like the American Nurses Association and the American College of Physicians are on board,” said Tom Angell of the Marijuana Majority. The administration, Angell said, should reschedule the drug “before this president leaves office.”
Read the DEA letter here.