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Rescheduling marijuana is the wrong approach. It should be descheduled entirely

The global cannabis industry, regulators and activists are abuzz with what Politico is referring to as “potentially the biggest change in federal drug policy in decades:” Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra has recommended to Attorney General Merrick Garland and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that cannabis be recategorized as a Schedule III controlled substance.

It’s a big deal and, indeed, a step in the right direction. But it’s also not enough. 

We should of course applaud the progress: President Joe Biden has taken a step no U.S. president ever has in ordering his administration to rethink the way the government treats the plant and its embarrassing, now 53-year-old federal status as a Schedule I drug. So it’s far from hyperbolic to say that Secretary Becerra’s recommendation is legitimately historic. 

But this suggested move also falls short of what is truly needed: a complete descheduling, or removal, of cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, or CSA, where cannabis currently sits as a Schedule I drug, right next to heroin and hypnotics like Quaaludes.

This suggested move also falls short of what is truly needed: a complete descheduling, or removal, of cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act.

Don’t get me wrong: Reclassifying cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule III would certainly move the needle forward by placing cannabis in the same category as prescription-only drugs like ketamine, anabolic steroids and certain opioids. It would likely enable interstate cannabis trade and remove the cumbersome 280E tax burden that prevents legal cannabis companies from writing off standard business expenses.

But rescheduling cannabis under the CSA, rather than descheduling it completely, doesn’t address the underlying issue: The cannabis plant shouldn’t be a controlled substance under federal law. Period. Alcohol isn’t a controlled substance. Tobacco isn’t a controlled substance. Not even caffeine is a controlled substance. Cannabis shouldn’t be a controlled substance either. 

The cannabis plant shouldn’t be a controlled substance under federal law. Period.

And by the way, Schedule III isn’t even the least restrictive classification. That would be Schedule V, which includes cough medicines containing codeine like Robitussin AC.

Let’s rewind for a moment, back to 1970, when the CSA was signed into law as part of a larger bill by the Drug War’s chief architect, President Richard Nixon.The bill created five “schedules” under which regulated substances are categorized based on their supposed abuse potential and medical benefit (or lack thereof). 

The notoriously racist Nixon and his administration intentionally miscategorized cannabis, according to his own adviser, as among the worst of the worst substances. Why, you might ask?


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“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people,” Nixon’s domestic affairs advisor John Ehrlichman told journalist and author Dan Baum in 1994. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news.” 

Did they know they were lying? “Of course we did,” said Ehrlichman, who served a year and a half in prison for his high-ranking role in the Watergate scandal. 

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”

The Nixon administration, indeed, chose to ignore advice from its own commission in 1972 that the U.S. decriminalize possession, use and “casual distribution” of the cannabis plant. The Shafer Commission’s report rhymed with research done at the time by similar bodies in France and the U.K.

Today, many millions of arrests later, the high-inducing cannabis plant remains categorized as Schedule I, meaning the federal government treats it as a drug “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Cannabis is currently deemed worse than illicit fentanyl and methamphetamine — chemicals that have taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans. (In fact, both meth and fentanyl are labeled Schedule II, meaning the DEA recognizes some medical value in these drugs when they are prescribed as pharmaceuticals. It does not extend the same grace to cannabis.)

Despite a growing body of scientific evidence, from health researchers in Australia to the New York State Department of Health and even the National Institutes of Health (NIH), showing that cannabis increases quality of life for those living with diseases like cancer and reduces reliance on opioids and helps aid chronic pain — and despite the fact that many states across the country have demonstrated that cannabis can be safely regulated like other adult-use substances such as alcohol and tobacco — the federal government is not recommending that cannabis be declassified. 

It’s encouraging that President Biden and HHS have taken the initiative to recommend reclassifying cannabis, but the U.S. deserves drug policy rooted in truth, reason and science. Reclassifying cannabis doesn’t do that. It also doesn’t address the conflict between state and federal cannabis laws, which means we will continue to see more people (primarily BIPOC) going to prison over this nontoxic plant. 

This is a half step where a whole step is needed. 

It should be mentioned that my background as a journalist and the first Cannabis Editor at a major U.S. newspaper informs my position that declassifying cannabis is legitimately the only logical decision here. Marijuana’s inclusion on the CSA is out of touch with reality, over a decade after Colorado and Washington first legalized cannabis recreationally.

Far more dangerous, legal substances than cannabis are consumed every day with no oversight from the DEA and comparably little regulation. Tobacco and alcohol combined kill more than a half million Americans each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and NIH.

The evidence is growing and undeniable: Cannabis is a safe and effective plant used for both health and recreation. Zero deaths have been attributed to cannabis overdose, according to the above federal agencies. The history of prohibition is riddled with racism and authoritarianism, and this suggested rescheduling does nothing to right those historical wrongs. 

The Biden administration should not cave to the allure of simply rescheduling. Cannabis does not belong in any of the five categories created at the beginnings of what is now America’s longest, failing war. 

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