The DEA’s Classification of Marijuana as a Schedule I Substance

Recently, the Drug Enforcement Agency once again declined to change marijuana’s classification from Schedule I to Schedule II.  While not unexpected, to my mind this is one of the least defensible decisions of current government policy.

A bit of background may be helpful.  Schedule I substances are defined as having “no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse.”  Examples of substances in this category are heroin, LSD, and Ecstasy.

Schedule II substances are defined as having “a high potential for abuse which may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.” Examples in this category are methadone, OxyContin, morphine, and Adderall.  While schedule II substances can be prescribed for medical treatments, schedule I substances cannot because there are “no currently accepted medical uses.”

Schedule III substances are defined as having “a potential for abuse less than substances in Schedules I or II [where] abuse may lead to moderate or low physical dependence or high psychological dependence.” Examples include Vicodin and anabolic steroids such as Depo-Testosterone.

What world do these people live in?  I would not argue that marijuana has no negative effects.  But of course that is not the question.  Treating marijuana as equivalent to heroin or LSD in schedule I or as similar to methadone, morphine or OxyContin in schedule II or even as Vicodin in schedule III seems absurd.

In my view, marijuana satisfies none of the criteria for schedule I.  It can certainly be used, if it were prescribed, in a safe manner.  And it certainly has much less of a potential for abuse than many substances in schedule II or III.

The DEA justified the continued schedule I classification on the ground that there was “no currently accepted medical use in the United States.”  With large numbers of doctors and patients currently claiming that medical marijuana helps them when no other medicine does, from treating issues of chronic pain to the side effects of chemotherapy to preventing certain seizures, this is ridiculous.  There is evidence that medical marijuana can substitute for opioids, which is extremely important in a country where opioid addiction and abuse is a serious problem.

The DEA claims to want the type of studies that would be accepted by the FDA to allow a prescription drug in order to change this finding.  That seems unjustified.  One could reclassify marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II without it being approved by the FDA for prescription by doctors.  In fact, the change in classification by itself would have relatively limited effects and would not change the legality of the drug.

But the problems go deeper.  A big part of the reason that marijuana does not have the studies that the DEA says it wants is that the government has a monopoly on marijuana that can be used in studies and it is very restrictive about allowing it to be used.  A wonderful example of Catch 22.

At least, this aspect of the current regime is now being changed.  The DEA is now willing to allow competition among marijuana suppliers for studies into its effectiveness.  So that may make it easier to study marijuana.  But this is a relatively small change and one that should have occurred years ago.