When it comes to the topic of legalizing cannabis, you may have heard the numerous calls to ‘reschedule’ the plant. But what does this even mean?
Rescheduling cannabis means adjusting how the plant is categorized under federal law. Right now cannabis is considered a highly dangerous controlled substance. However, if it were rescheduled to a less severe categorization, its enforcement and restrictions would theoretically lessen as well.
There are several pros and cons to rescheduling cannabis, we will cover those in-depth here. Before we get into the details of cannabis scheduling though, let’s cover a few key terms you might or might not be familiar with:
- Controlled Substance: A substance that is tightly regulated by the government for fear of abuse or misuse
- De-scheduling: Refers to the removal of a substance from the controlled substance categorization entirely
- Rescheduling: Refers to the changing of a substance from one schedule to another
What is Scheduling?
Scheduling refers to the five ‘schedules’ outlined in the Controlled Substance Act (CSA). Signed in 1971, the CSA established a legal framework for drug and substance categorizations.
All controlled substances that can be federally regulated in any capacity are placed into one of the five schedules. Their placement is based on, “the substance’s medical use, the potential for abuse, and safety or dependence liability.”
The five schedules are ordered in terms of potential abuse levels and medical usage. Schedule I categorizes drugs that have a “high potential for abuse and the potential to create severe psychological and/or physical dependence”, while Schedule V categorizes drugs with little to no potential for abuse and ample medical capabilities. Schedules II, III, and IV vary in the degrees of abuse potential from high to low respectively.
So where does cannabis fall? Schedule I — the most dangerous class.
Where Is Cannabis Currently Scheduled?
Cannabis has been a Schedule I class drug since the Controlled Substance Act was signed.
Other substances that are in this schedule include; heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy), methaqualone, and peyote. These substances are all placed here due to three main factors.
- There is a high potential for abuse
- There is no accepted medical use in the United States
- There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug under medical supervision
In theory, if a drug hits every one of these factors, it should be placed in Schedule I. However, let’s look at cannabis in the 21st century.
As of today, 37 states have legalized cannabis in some capacity. All of these states have approved the use of the plant for medical purposes. This directly counteracts the second requirement for controlled substances in Schedule I — “no accepted medical use in the US”. As well as the third requirement of usage under medical supervision given that prescriptions are often required to obtain medical cannabis.
Based on these facts, we can conclude that cannabis does not belong in Schedule I as it no longer meets the requirements. But is rescheduling the best idea when it comes to decriminalization?
The Pros of Rescheduling Cannabis
There are several benefits to rescheduling cannabis. The first one is the increased ability to research the plant and its uses.
Some in the marijuana industry are hesitant about rescheduling cannabis after several states have already legalized it. They fear if it’s rescheduled, the state regulations will be dashed and cannabis products must go through rigorous federal restrictions instead. Costing the existing industry time and money they do not have.
However, it is not likely that moving cannabis from Schedule I to another Schedule will have this outcome. In fact, rescheduling may relax the bureaucratic hurdles to researching cannabis including the numerous medical benefits and uses. Which benefits the industry in the long run.
Additionally, increases in research into the medical use of cannabis can further legitimize the plant. Making cannabis more widely acceptable in the public’s eye, which in turn will help in the effort to decriminalize the plant.
This leads to the second main benefit which is rescheduling is a probable path to decriminalization. Talks surrounding rescheduling have been in the works for years. Unfortunately, the efforts to decriminalize have been recently stalled by the White House. The house has just passed the MORE Act which will de-schedule cannabis, but it is likely to fail in the senate.
With these recent events, many think that rescheduling is the best course of action to take. As a small stepping stone to decriminalization, versus de-scheduling which removes cannabis from the Schedule entirely but is harder to pass.
Finally, the third biggest benefit of rescheduling cannabis is the reduction in anti-cannabis enforcement. As mentioned earlier, cannabis is inappropriately scheduled. It is not a highly dangerous drug as the government labels it. Yet, hundreds of thousands of people are facing years in prison thanks to this mislabeling.
If cannabis is rescheduled to a lower schedule, the level of enforcement may decrease in tandem. This is because the US government will ideally no longer classify it as a highly dangerous controlled substance, and consequently will no longer allocate as many resources to regulating a non-dangerous drug.
For this benefit to happen, however, cannabis must be rescheduled to Schedule III or lower. A Schedule II classification will still consider the plant ‘highly dangerous’.
The Cons of Rescheduling Cannabis
Unfortunately, rescheduling cannabis will not resolve the litany of problems that exist today thanks to current drug policies.
Rescheduling will not legalize cannabis nor will it absolve current prisoners of cannabis-related crimes. Furthermore, because it will likely be rescheduled to Schedule II, the potential benefits of rescheduling are even more improbable.
If rescheduled to Schedule II, enforcement will not decrease a significant amount. Additionally, there will be no tax alleviation for the cannabis industry. Alleviation is desperately needed. The resolution of these issues should be the highest priority when it comes to the decriminalization conversation.
While rescheduling may be a theoretically easier step, it has still failed to pass time and time again. That is why many believe that de-scheduling, while more difficult, is the preferred solution.
De-scheduling will take cannabis off of the controlled substance schedule entirely. All of the benefits of rescheduling will be doubled if the plant is de-scheduled instead. You can think of rescheduling as a small step, whereas de-scheduling is a big leap in the right direction towards decriminalization.
Today, there exists a growing movement to de-schedule cannabis. The MORE act calls for de-scheduling, and several members of the Senate have expressed interest in this idea as opposed to older calls for rescheduling.
While it is possible to reschedule and then de-schedule afterward if the momentum exists to de-schedule — why not take the leap now?