In early June, the Drug Policy Alliance in conjunction with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) published a scathing report that accused the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of engaging in over four decades of poor practices that impeded or blindly rejected research into the potential benefits of marijuana. Shortly following the report and a petition, the DEA initiated the federal government’s review process to determine whether or not marijuana could be legally classified as a less dangerous controlled substance. This is not the first time the federal government has “reconsidered” reclassifying marijuana. In fact, there have been at least five instances in which the DEA was called upon to reconsider its classification, all of which failed to result in any changes. This raises the question, why, despite contrary popular opinion, has the federal government not taken a more progressive stance on marijuana? And, will that change in the near future?
Below is a brief look into the history of government research and classification of marijuana, the Controlled Substance Act, and how politics and institutional interests, not science, shaped it all.
As It Stands Now
Currently, marijuana is categorized as a Schedule I substance as defined by the Controlled Substance Act. The Controlled Substance Act classifies drugs on a sliding scale from I to V. Schedule I includes the most dangerous types of drugs and V, the least dangerous. So, along with heroin and LSD, marijuana is considered to be one of the most dangerous types of drugs, more dangerous than even cocaine and methamphetamine (both Schedule II).
Schedule I drugs are also distinct in two important ways: they are considered to have an exceedingly high potential for abuse and have absolutely no accepted medical use. The fact that marijuana is categorized as a Schedule I substance is obviously contrary to both widely accepted research and other state delineations.
Why Marijuana Was Classified as One of the Most Dangerous Drugs in America
When the Controlled Substances Act was first drafted in the early 1970’s, Congress commissioned a report on the study of marijuana abuse in the U.S., which came to be known as the Shafer Commission Report. In the absence of any substantial scientific research on the drug, it was decided that marijuana would be temporarily classified as a Schedule I substance until the report was finalized. The report, one of the most comprehensive government-sponsored investigations on marijuana, called for the decriminalization of the drug and stated that “looking only at the effects on the individual, there, is little proven danger of physical or psychological harm from the experimental or intermittent use of the natural preparations of cannabis.”
Despite the commission’s outward rejection of the Schedule I classification, their report was ignored by the Nixon administration shortly after Nixon declared drug abuse the “public enemy number one in the United States.”
Why It Remained a Schedule I Substance
The Schedule I classification of marijuana has remained intact for forty-two years, despite criticism since the very inception of the classification system. NORML filed the first petition to reclassify marijuana in 1972. The numerous rejections of rescheduling (reclassifying) petitions have mostly cited the lack of research or evidencing showing the benefits of marijuana as grounds for their objection.
Ironically, the very agencies voting on the rescheduling petitions are those with a monopoly on marijuana research. Any petition to reschedule must be approved by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). In what has been called a Catch-22 by marijuana researchers, the research needed to prove marijuana doesn’t qualify as a Schedule I substance is the most restricted and regulated because the research involves a Schedule I substance. It would be much easier to obtain research grants and approval from the government if marijuana was a Schedule III or IV drug. Not to mention, the NIDA has a monopoly on the only legal supply of marijuana. So, most proper research can be done only in accordance with the NIDA’s allowances, which are reported to be few.
Of course, the vested interest of the institutions whose budgets depend on a continued large-scale drug war plays a role in the continuance of poor marijuana policy. However, the objectives of these institutions should not be overlooked as a factor. Both the DEA’s and the NIDA’s foremost missions are to “enforce drug policy” or “reduce or eliminate drug-taking behavior,” not to research substances completely or with an eye towards their finding their value. Needless to say, neither institution should hold their current monopoly on drug classification.
Will It Be Rescheduled?
Given the history of past rescheduling petitions, it cannot be said with certainty that marijuana will be reclassified to a lesser schedule this time around. However, there is still much hope that marijuana will be reclassified in the near future.
The current political sway towards marijuana decriminalization shows that the federal government is more willing than ever to loosen the reigns on marijuana regulation. Over half the country supports marijuana legalization. While it is unlikely that reclassification will be the result of a petition, the attorney general has the authority to remove any drug from the schedule or reclassify any drug.
Presidential hopefuls are sure to latch onto pro-marijuana reform to increase voter turnout in the 2016 election. Advocacy of rescheduling marijuana is an easy position for future candidates to take; it is very progressive, but won’t throw too big of a wrench into the well-oiled drug war machine. That’s not to say though, that a reclassification of marijuana won’t have a significant impact on future research and the government’s attitude toward future drug policies.