As you may or may not know, the majority of the drugs in this country—both prescription and recreational—are regulated according to the “Schedule” they fall into. The scheduling system has five levels (I-V) and was established by the Controlled Substances Act.  The restrictions and regulations pertaining to a given substance’s legality are established by the scheduling level the particular compound falls under. The lower the Schedule, the more restrictions are placed on it, and the more regulated a given substance is. The scheduling level a substance is placed on is determined by the evaluation of several factors, chief among which is the “potential for abuse.” Generally, the higher the potential for abuse the lower the scheduling. The analysis of the potential for abuse is weighed against the importance of the use of the drug. This dichotomy is the reason why highly addictive substances like cocaine and morphine are placed in Schedule II. Schedule II is the lowest a substance can be Scheduled while still being a substance a doctor can prescribe as doctors cannot prescribe Schedule I.

Substances are placed in Schedule I if they are found to:

1.     Have a high potential for abuse.

2.     Not have a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.

3.     Not have accepted safety parameters for use under medical supervision.\

In addition to the prohibition on prescription by doctors, Schedule I substances are subject to production quotas which the DEA imposes (i.e there is an extremely limited legal supply, if any, of the drug). Moreover, it is illegal, and indeed a Class 1 federal felony, to conduct any otherwise legitimate scientific research of any kind on Schedule I substances.

 Under the DEA’s interpretation of the CSA, a drug does not necessarily have to have the same “high potential for abuse” as heroin, for example, to merit placement in Schedule I. The DEA holds that, “When it comes to a drug that is currently listed in Schedule I, if it is undisputed that such drug has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and it is further undisputed that the drug has at least some potential for abuse sufficient to warrant control under the CSA, the drug must remain in Schedule I, and placement of the drug in Schedules II through V would conflict with the CSA since such drug would not meet the criterion of ‘a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.’”

Marijuana is currently scheduled in Schedule I. This is interesting because according to the National Cancer Institute, (which is a part of the US Department of Health)  “cannabinoids may be useful in treating the side effects of cancer and cancer treatment.” The page that details the potential uses for marijuana on the National Cancer Institute’s website also lists other uses like: anti-inflammatory activity, the blocking cell growth, preventing the growth of blood vessels that supply tumors, antiviral activity, and relief for muscle spasms caused by multiple sclerosis.

 Admittedly these uses are all derived from studies conducted on mice and rats, but it would seem that there is at least preliminary data indicating that the cannabinoids found in marijuana have important medical uses, data that is now accepted by the federal government (we are, of course, ignoring the vast amount of data available at the state level showing medical use for marijuana). At the very least, it does not seem that “it is undisputed” that marijuana has “no currently accepted medical use.” As far as marijuana’s potential for abuse? Consider the fact that the many members of the most addictive class of drugs, the opioids (oxy, morphine, Percocet, etc), are all in Schedule II, and the most abused drug in the country, Xanax, is in Schedule III.

Are the winds of change blowing? It certainly seems like they are.

You can see the National Cancer Institute’s new page on marijuana here.

Update September 2019: The winds of change are blowing, very, very slowly.

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