Cannabis was made virtually illegal to sell by the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, pulled from medical prescription availability in 1942, and relegated to the most severe restriction of a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance in 1970. In the last 20 years, it has begun the shift back from social pariah to mainstream marvel. So what’s the future of cannabis? In order to make any significant progress, cannabis needs to get out of Schedule 1, but where exactly to move it is a hot debate. Scientists want a lower category while the fledgling cannabis industry wants it off the Controlled Substances Act entirely. What is the difference? A lot, actually.
Rescheduling cannabis to a less restrictive category would facilitate scientific studies, currently hindered by the government’s monopoly on cultivation and study approval for scientific purposes. Right now, scientists can put their careers and credibility on the line just by talking about its potential therapeutic applications.
Putting cannabis into a category lower than Schedule 1 would mean the opening of the door to medical prescription, rather than just a recommendation. Doctors still cannot legally prescribe the medicine, and for states like Texas, where the law states that it must be prescribed, this means that medical cannabis is still unavailable.
Rescheduling means limiting the dispensing of the product to pharmacies and doctors but still helps with research and legality for medical patients.
What descheduling would do is remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act completely, relegating it the same status as alcohol and tobacco. This would allow states to control the substance entirely how they see fit and open up the nation to adult use without the pretext of medical need.
Most cannabis enthusiasts want cannabis to be descheduled, as do most cannabis-related businesses.
Descheduling would have all the benefits of access to scientific study and doctor prescription, without the limits on production and distribution, unless put in place by a state.
Why the battle?
In the early days of the CSA, cannabis was relegated to Schedule 1 pending scientific study. When those studies were completed, however, the Nixon administration ignored the findings and left it where it was. Over the years, many petitions have been filed with the FDA and DEA to reclassify cannabis, only to be stalled and rejected.
As states have passed medical and recreational laws on their own, and mainstream opinion on the plant have changed, pressure has mounted on the DEA to change its mind. Currently, the DEA is reviewing 2 separate petitions for the reclassification of cannabis, and DEA acting administrator Chuck Rosenberg wrote to lawmakers that the agency:
“Understands the widespread interest in the prompt resolution of these petitions [to reschedule marijuana] and hopes to release its determination in the first half of 2016.”
The power of change
There are multiple avenues for a change in cannabis law. The FDA or the DEA could change or remove its schedule, as could Congress, without the approval of another party. The Attorney General could do it, too. Title 21 USC Subchapter I Part B Section 811 Subsection (a)(2), reads, in part,
“The Attorney General may by rule remove any drug or other substance from the schedules if he finds that the drug or other substance does not meet the requirements for inclusion in any schedule.”
The President, who many see as a failure in his lack of action to legalize the plant and stop the devastating War on Drugs as far as cannabis is concerned, could perform the deed through pressure on other organizations to carry out the task, or potentially issue a Presidential Mandate, fully preventing the use of taxpayer funds to prosecute any form of cannabis use or industry, similar to his previous letter to the DOJ on a much more limited scope, protecting medical states.
The caveat to the whole legalization procedure is the United Nations, and the 1961 treaty putting cannabis in the category of illegal drugs. The Attorney General, DEA, FDA, President, & Congress are all bound by that treaty. The possible sanctions against us for breaking it are little more than a disapproving frown, as Portugal found out in 2001 when it decriminalized all drugs.
Canada and Mexico announced plans to legalize cannabis at the latest UN meeting this spring, and so the weight of that treaty should hold little water except for those who use its existence as a crutch to prop up prohibition. Changing the schedule of cannabis to a less restrictive category wouldn’t even affect it, though outright descheduling would.
The future of cannabis
A policy shift is inevitable, though whether it occurs this year of after more petitions is up in the air. Were cannabis rescheduled to a less restrictive category, but still controlled, it could spell upheaval for the recreational market. Some think that the recreational industry worries that limited restriction could reverse the progress made in states like Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. Others think that wider study could uncover
Others think that wider study could uncover negative effects that show the potential dangers of cannabis on the brain and body in long-term use. Those results could cause states to change their minds about legalization.
On the other hand, and as many believe, those studies could vindicate the industry from both medical and recreational standpoints. Cannabis is not without its scientific diligence already, however. There are over 20,000 studies on the plant and its interaction with the human body, more than for virtually any other substance. But those findings are still limited in scope.
While scientists, medical professionals, and of course legislators want a preponderance of evidence before putting their names in the ring of approval, the recreational industry and cannabis enthusiasts across the nation feel that the wait has been long enough, and it is well past time to free the weed.
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