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Five Reasons Why the DEA Really Can’t Keep Cannabis Schedule I Anymore

Lydia K. RN
cannabis, medical cannabis, pain relief, opioids, opioid epidemic, DEA, reschedule, schedule 1, prescription, narcotics

For 22 years, the DEA has resisted petition after petition, has blatantly ignored the medicinal value of cannabis, and has helped fan the flames of a useless and harmful ‘war on drugs.’ It’s time to get cannabis off Schedule I.

The placement of cannabis on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) is a highly contested subject. Schedule I is the only category of controlled substances not allowed to be prescribed by a physician. To fit into this category, drugs must meet three key criteria:

  1. The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse.
  2. The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.
  3. There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.
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The Act allows a process for rescheduling controlled substances through petitioning the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). In 1972, a petition was filed to have cannabis rescheduled, but it was unsuccessful, and remains so after a 22-year court battle. A subsequent petition, based on claims related to clinical studies, was again declined in 2001. A third petition was filed in 2002, but the DEA reaffirmed its position and refused to remove it from Schedule I classification.

These declinations have been supported by cannabis critics who have argued based on the premise that cannabis has not been adequately investigated by qualified experts to establish efficacy, safety and reproducible results. However, the reason it has not been adequately studied is precisely because it is Schedule I.

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Five reasons why the DEA simply can NOT hold cannabis hostage anymore:

ONE: Cannabis Does Not Have a High Potential for Abuse

Jon Gettman, former director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, has argued that “high potential for abuse” implies that a drug has a potential for abuse comparable to that of heroin or cocaine. However, when actually compared to the two, cannabis lacks the high abuse potential required for inclusion in Schedule I.

“Drug abuse is the intentional, non-therapeutic use of a drug product or substance to achieve a desired psychological or physiological effect. Desired psychological effects can include euphoria, hallucinations and other perceptual distortions, alterations in cognition, and changes in mood.” FDA Guidance on Abuse Potential Assessment, 2017.

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Cannabis use produces physiological and psychological changes that might be desirable and sought recreationally, hence the justification that it falls into this bracket.

But, in the same breath, sugar and caffeine meet these reward-based criteria and are arguably far more addictive and more likely to be abused than cannabis. Yet, these are not subject to CSA scheduling. One could argue that if coffee and sugar were restricted they would inspire the same drug-seeking behaviors and trafficking that other items on the Schedule I and II list.

TWO: Cannabis Has Known Medicinal Use

Thirty-one states have already recognized the medicinal value of cannabis and this says a lot about its healing properties. As much as the FDA continues to argue that there is ‘no consensus among qualified experts’ about the efficacy of cannabis in treating medical conditions, numerous studies have proved time and again that cannabis has medicinal value. Rescheduling will allow further research to confirm these findings.

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THREE: Cannabis is Safe for Your Body with Few Side Effects

A 1999 Institute of Medicine report found that “except for the harms associated with smoking, the adverse effects of cannabis use are within the range of effects tolerated for other medications.” Luckily, there are a number of different ways to consume cannabis; you don’t have to smoke. These include: inhalers, transdermal patches, oral capsules and tinctures, vaporizers and medibles.

By comparison, antihistamines, such as Benadryl, are approved as OTC drugs but can be lethal, especially in combination with other drugs.  It is also within a class of drugs (anticholinergic) that have been implicated as a possible trigger for dementia. If product safety is the key to scheduling, then the restrictions should be the same across the board. Otherwise, when only Big Pharma is excluded from the Schedule, it breeds contempt for the FDA and the DEA.

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Another study found that “there are virtually no reports of fatal cannabis overdose in humans”. The possible explanation could be that there are minimal concentration of cannabinoid receptors in the region of the brain that controls breathing.

FOUR: The ‘War on Drugs’ is Very Expensive and Ineffective

The CSA forms the legal foundation for the “War on Drugs.” Since its inception 50 years ago, the war has failed so miserably, that the drug epidemic has never been worse. This is in spite of the millions of dollars spent on fighting “crime” by arresting drug traffickers and keeping them incarcerated and combating drug-related crimes.

By restricting the consumption of cannabis, the CSA has actually funded a lucrative black market that crosses into real, dangerous drugs like heroin and cocaine. This policy is heavy handed, expensive and non effective and should be replaced with sound regulation crafted in the public interest to protect consumers and stamp out illicit activities.

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FIVE: Removal of Cannabis from the CSA will Improve the Quality, Scope and Cost of Research 

Placing cannabis in Schedule I status has made it difficult to get permission and funding for cannabis research. In order to fully satisfy all the requirements of rescheduling, research needs to be carried out to prove safety, efficacy and reproducible results. But this can only be made possible if cannabis is rescheduled and the DEA has full authority to do this.

With all the evidence suggested above, the DEA should stop dragging its feet and reschedule cannabis for the benefit of patients and their doctors.


Lydia Kariuki

RN, Expert medical writer who is passionate about cannabis!

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