On December 6, addressing the Second Annual Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative National Law Enforcement Summit in Boston, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams called for a new approach to the nation’s drug policy, including rescheduling marijuana so that it may be more easily researched.

“Our scheduling system is functioning, but not as ideally as it could. We have to continue to evolve,” said the federal government’s head doctor. “Just as we need to look at criminal justice laws, rules and regulations, we need to look at health laws, rules and regulations, and that includes the scheduling system.” Regarding marijuana in particular, Adams said: “I’ll take it somewhere else…one of the concerns that I have with marijuana is the difficulty that the folks have to do research on it, because of the scheduling system.”

This statement, and the lack of notice or controversy that has arisen from it, represents a remarkable change. While previous surgeons general have said that marijuana could be researched more or that it may have medical benefit, Adams’ statement, which has not been contradicted by the president or another administration official, indicates that rescheduling marijuana at the federal level is no longer a political impossibility.

The CSA Schedule

Until 1970, there was no one law classifying all the drugs that the federal government considered illegal or so dangerous as to be subject to criminal law. With passage of the Controlled Substance Act (CSA), the government created a classification system (or list or schedule) for these drugs. There are five schedules, with Schedule 1 being the most restrictive. As a Schedule 1 drug, marijuana is classified as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” It shares this classification with heroin, LSD, ecstasy, and peyote.

Schedule 2 drugs are classified as having great potential for abuse and dependence. These include Vicodin, Demerol, OxyContin, fentanyl, Adderall, Ritalin, methamphetamine, morphine, and cocaine. Ketamine is a Schedule 3 drug, and Xanax Schedule 4.

While it may seem absurd to classify meth, fentanyl, opioids, and cocaine as having less potential for abuse than marijuana, that has been the federal government’s position since 1970. Court challenges to this classification, which began soon after it was enacted, were met with stonewalling, including refusals to follow court orders to support the scheduling system with research (which is required under the CSA) and to reschedule marijuana as a result of research. As late as 1996, for example, General Barry McCaffrey, then the federal drug policy director, opposed medical legalization in California, saying: “There is not a shred of evidence that shows that smoked marijuana is useful or needed” and that medical legalization posed “a serious threat to the effectiveness of drug enforcement and prevention.” In 2016, while Barack Obama was president, the head of the DEA claimed that the classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug was based on science and that its use was neither safe nor effective treatment for any medical condition.

While President Donald Trump has made offhand remarks favoring a relaxation of federal law regarding marijuana, his former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was opposed to rescheduling marijuana. In addition, the Trump administration was found to be employing a secret task force, the Marijuana Policy Coordination Committee, whose mission was to find the “negative trends” of state legalization and the “threats” that legalization posed to the country. The Trump administration thus cannot be classified as being unequivocal on the topic of rescheduling marijuana. Nevertheless, the surgeon general’s remarks, and the lack of their subsequent contradiction by his superiors in the Trump administration, are remarkable and promising.

What do you think? When will the federal government reschedule marijuana? Leave a comment below.

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