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FDA Weighs in on Rescheduling Cannabis

Federal health officials recently sent guidance to the Drug Enforcement Agency on whether cannabis should be reclassified under federal law. That could be exciting news, except for one thing: We still don’t know what it says.

Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, cannabis is still more tightly regulated than opium or cocaine. Its classification as a Schedule I substance means the DEA feels cannabis offers absolutely zero medical benefit — a view that patients, doctors, politicians and even presidential candidates have criticized.

Advice from the Food and Drug Administration, however, could change that position. The DEA requested rescheduling advice from the FDA, and the health agency has been working on it since at least last year. Thanks to a letter obtained by longtime reform advocate Tom Angell, we now know a formal recommendation has been sent.

The letter acknowledges the FDA’s advice exists, but it doesn’t indicate what change, if any, the agency recommends. Still, there’s not much to lose — as a Schedule I substance, cannabis’s standing in the eyes of the federal government can only improve.

Other rescheduling efforts are ongoing. The CARERS Act before the U.S. Senate would move cannabis to Schedule II, allowing doctors to prescribe it and providing easier access for research. But the act is currently stalled in committee, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

A 2011 petition by the then-governors of Washington and Rhode Island also call on the DEA to reconsider, though that push hasn’t brought about any obvious change.

Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders has said he would remove cannabis from the CSA entirely, regulating it instead like alcohol and tobacco. And Donald Trump, who leads presidential polls among Republicans, called himself “100 percent” for medical marijuana — even though he opposes legalization.

Past efforts to reschedule cannabis have fallen flat. Most recently, an appeal to the D.C. Circuit, filed by Americans for Safe Access, was denied by the court in 2013.

DEA Chief on Rescheduling Cannabis: "Yeah, I Don't Think So"

Whatever the FDA’s advice is, there’s good reason to be skeptical it will change minds at the DEA. In 1988, the DEA’s own chief administrative law judge called cannabis “one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man,” and called for it to be reclassified to Schedule II. The agency didn’t budge.

But there’s still hope. Last week the DEA announced it would ease restrictions for scientists performing medical research involving cannabidiol (CBD). While the new policy amounts to a minor procedural change, it’s a rare sign that the enforcement administration may be warming to the medical potential of cannabis.

(If you want to know more about the DEA’s stance on cannabis, check out the Drug Policy Alliance’s 16-page paper, “The DEA: Four Decades of Impeding and Rejecting Science” — though the title alone is pretty self-explanatory.)

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Ben Adlin

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor who specializes in cannabis politics and law. He was a news editor for Leafly from 2015-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @badlin

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