DEA: marijuana stays in most restricted drug class despite state relaxation

(Photo Credit: Carla Green)

The federal government has declined to downgrade marijuana’s classification as a dangerous drug with high potential for abuse and no medicinal value. That’s despite half the states in the union legalizing pot in some form with others likely to follow. Drug reform advocates are lamenting the move as a lost opportunity to move towards a coherent national cannabis policy. FSRN’s Carla Green reports.

Download Audio

The Drug Enforcement Administration has spoken:  marijuana will remain in the most restricted class of drugs – “Schedule I” – meaning the government considers it to have a “high potential for abuse” and no accepted medical use in the United States. That lumps it in with drugs like ecstasy and heroin.

“The DEA has tried to do this three times already. So I think that people were hopeful, but they weren’t surprised when it ended up not being re-scheduled,” says Alexa Steinberg, a Beverly Hills lawyer who regularly represents clients in California’s booming medical marijuana industry. On the back of her business card, black, embossed letters, give instructions on what to say and what not to say to an arresting officer.

Steinberg sees the DEA’s decisions as a lost opportunity. So does law professor Alex Kreit at Thomas Jefferson School of Law. But, Kreit says, even if the DEA had chosen to loosen up on marijuana, it likely wouldn’t have made much difference from a legal standpoint.

“It’s not really clear that rescheduling would do a whole lot to solve the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws,” Kreit explains. “If marijuana were moved into Schedule II, the conflict between state medical marijuana laws and federal drug law would really remain, to a large degree. Because schedule II drugs can’t just be distributed in the way that state medical marijuana laws permit them to be distributed.

But because schedule II drugs can have accepted medical uses, drugs like vicodin, and codeine – even cocaine – are Schedule II,  rescheduling marijuana would have been an acknowledgement of the ever-growing body of research showing that marijuana has documented medical value.

Currently 25 out of 50 states permit marijuana use by adults either recreationally or with a doctor’s prescription – as has been the case in California since 1996. Voters in nine states, including California, will vote on increasing access to marijuana in November. Poll after opinion poll shows Americans are relaxing their views of marijuana as a drug on par with say, alcohol or nicotine.

And while the DEA didn’t give ground on scheduling, it did ease restrictions on studying marijuana’s medicinal properties.

Up until now, federal law has given a monopoly on legally growing cannabis for research to one entity: the University of Mississippi. That is about to change. Alongside its decision on rescheduling last week, the DEA made a parallel announcement that effectively lifted that monopoly, opening up the field for other suppliers to grow research-grade marijuana.

That’s a significant change, Steinberg says: “I think having it not re-scheduled and opening the door to research opens a lot more doors, too.”

Currently, much of the federal government’s attitude towards pot rests on a trio of memos issued by the Justice Department between 2011 and 2014. The memos instructed federal prosecutors not to go after people abiding by state marijuana laws.

But the hands-off approach of a presidential administration in the last year of its political life isn’t much of a reassurance to a multi-billion dollar industry looking to expand without having its assets seized and being threatened with federal prison.

If the next administration were to change the policy, it would throw things into a state of chaos,” says Kreit.

Chaos that’s hypothetical, for the moment. The U.S. Justice Department doesn’t have the resources to pursue the thousands of growers and dealers abiding by state laws, Kreit says – that’s part of why the memos were issued in the first place. And, he says, that makes it unlikely the next president would want to seriously alter current policy.

Unlikely, but far from impossible. Especially in a country like the United States, with the confusing and contradictory legislative mess that is American marijuana policy, and in an election year no less.

You may also like...