Here’s Why the DEA Can’t “Legalize” Medical Marijuana

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If you read a lot of news about marijuana, you may have heard: The DEA is on the verge of legalizing medical marijuana from coast to coast. Well, don’t believe it.

It’s a rumor, and like all rumors, there’s a fair amount of truth to it. The anti-drug agency is reviewing its listing of cannabis on schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, and it could in fact decide to reschedule the drug. An announcement is expected by the end of the summer.

But don’t count on it. The mission of the DEA is stopping the manufacture, distribution, and sale of drugs that are banned by federal law, and marijuana is banned by federal law. The DEA receives massive amounts of money from Congress to fight the cannabis industry, and financial incentives alone make it unlikely the agency will cut off that cash flow.

DEA incentivized to keep marijuana illegal

That doesn’t mean a rescheduling is impossible. But even if it happens, it won’t mean patients in all 50 states will have access to medicinal pot. Far from it.

If marijuana is rescheduled, it would probably be moved to schedule 2. While schedule 1 is reserved for heroin, LSD, and other drugs the government considers extremely addictive, extremely dangerous, and medically useless, schedule 2 includes substances such as cocaine and methamphetamine that are highly restricted but nonetheless legal for limited medical uses.

DEA

Many marijuana advocates are hoping that a decision by the DEA to reschedule marijuana would lead quickly to legal prescriptions of the drug across the United States. Access would be limited to patients with severe problems, as is the case with cocaine and amphetamine, but physicians could write legal prescriptions without fear of federal prosecution.

Moving cannabis to schedule 2 would have little immediate impact

Some form of medical marijuana is legal under the laws of more than 30 states, but it remains illegal under federal statute. As long as it remains in schedule 1, that will not change. But even moving pot to schedule 2 wouldn’t make much immediate difference.

That’s because all prescription drugs must win approval from the FDA before doctors can legally prescribe them. FDA approval almost always requires several phases of intense clinical trials, a process that could delay legal access to the drug by years.

In fact, a move to schedule 2 could have the opposite effect. State and federal regulators could decide to block states from allowing medical cannabis use under their own laws until the FDA process is complete. That probably wouldn’t happen, but the threat should give advocates pause.

Marijuana has been listed on schedule 1 since the Controlled Substances Act was passed during the first Nixon administration. It has never belonged on that list, which includes drugs that are banned for any use, but the DEA and Congress have long refused to change the law.

And there are few signs the DEA is likely to change its position now. Without action by the agency, only Congress has the authority to reschedule cannabis. That appears unlikely to happen in the immediate future, but omens from Capitol Hill have been increasingly positive in recent months.

Even if it doesn’t give patients quick access to prescription marijuana, a rescheduling would make it easier for scientists to study the drug. That, in turn, could lead to faster and more widespread legalization.

Leave a comment: Do you think the DEA will reschedule marijuana? If not now, when?

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