U.S. Department of Drug Enforcement Proposes Marijuana Schedule Change

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A crop of medicinal marijuana. (cannabis sativa) 
Courtesy of Prairie Plant Systems

“Attorney General [Merrick Garland] circulated a proposal to reclassify marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III. Once published by the Federal Register, it will initiate a formal rulemaking process as prescribed by Congress in the Controlled Substances Act,” announced Xochitl Hinojosa, U.S. Department of Justice director of public affairs.

The proposal, which follows a recommendation from Health and Human Services, would move marijuana from a Schedule I drug with heroin, LSD, and ecstasy to a Schedule III drug with ketamine, Tylenol with codeine, and testosterone

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), schedule I drugs are “substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Schedule III drugs are “drugs with a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence. Schedule III drugs abuse potential is less than Schedule I and Schedule II drugs but more than Schedule IV,” which includes Xanax, Valium, and Ambien.

Supporters of the move cite benefits such as making “it easier to research cannabis, something that scientists and public health officials have wanted for years. It also will move cannabis businesses out from under section 280E of the federal tax code, which prohibits them from writing off most basic business expenses and makes it exceedingly difficult to turn a profit.” The reduction in tax burden is likely to promote growth in the marijuana industry.

Critics call it a step backward in drug regulation and a violation of international treaty, and “point out that as a Schedule III drug, marijuana would remain regulated by the DEA. That means the roughly 15,000 cannabis dispensaries in the U.S. would have to register with the DEA like regular pharmacies and fulfill strict reporting requirements, something that they are loath to do and that the DEA is ill equipped to handle.”

The change will first be published in the Federal Register, after which a 60-day public comment period will commence. Then the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)will review the rule and an administrative law judge will review the proposal and could require a hearing before the rule is approved. Congress could reject or change the rule based on the Congressional Review Act, but such action would require a supermajority vote in both houses.

However, marijuana will remain illegal at the federal level. “A lot of people are going to be disappointed and probably a bit surprised about how very little changes,” said Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

1. Review the DEA drug schedule. Should marijuana be included? Which level? Explain your answer(s).

2. Should medical and/or recreational marijuana be legal at the federal level? Why or why not?

Steve Benen, “Why the Biden Administration Plan to Reclassify Marijuana Matters,” msnbc.com, May 3, 2024

Natalie Fertig, “Biden Administration Poised to Weaken Weed Restrictions, a Seismic Shift from Decades of Harsh Policies,” politico.com, Apr. 30, 2024

Zeke Miller, et al., “U.S. Poised to Ease Restrictions on Marijuana in Historic Shift, but It’ll Remain Controlled Substance,” apnews.com, Apr. 30, 2024

Eileen Sullivan, Glenn Thrush and Zolan Kanno-Youngs, “Justice Dept. Recommends Easing Restrictions on Marijuana,” nytimes.com, Apr. 30, 2024

Julie Tsirkin and Monica Alba, “Biden Administration Plans to Reclassify Marijuana, Easing Restrictions Nationwide,” nbcnews.com, Apr. 30, 2024

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, “Drug Scheduling,” dea.gov (accessed May 6, 2024)