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What Does the DEA Rescheduling Cannabis Mean?

Updated: May 3

The DEA is Rescheduling Cannabis

You may have read or heard that cannabis is being rescheduled by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a Schedule III rather than a Schedule I drug. Here are the basics:

  1. It hasn’t happened yet but is in process.  It has some steps to go through – including The House Office of Management and Budget sign off, a public comment period, and then being recorded for 30 days before it is effective.

  2. It has no impact on the pending legislation in Florida as previously discussed, which, as of this writing, the governor has neither signed nor vetoed.  See our article about SB 1698 for more details. The Hemp Industry already operates under federal law where the hemp plant (a type of cannabis) and most of its derivatives are legal. Thus, regulation, not scheduling is the only thing that directly alters the landscape for hemp.

  3. To be clear – this does NOT mean that cannabis will no longer be a controlled substance.  It simply means it will be recognized as less harmful and having medical use, but will still very much be controlled.

  4. This action will not impact the need for state programs for recreational cannabis. These programs allow adult purchase “over the counter.” Whereas federally, schedule III drugs (soon including cannabis) still require prescriptions. 

  5. It does not change the landscape for interstate commerce of cannabis that is not classified as Hemp. This would still require FDA approval. Since they still haven’t approved CBD as “Generally Regarded as Safe,” this may require some icicles to form in Satan’s domain. 

  6. There is speculation that banking access for dispensaries will be opened up. I’m not a banker, but the reading I have done indicates this is likely true. This would require banks to determine that cannabis is now an acceptable risk. Or Congress may finally be motivated to pass the SAFER banking act.

  7. This means cannabis dispensaries, both recreational and medical, will have additional federal tax deductions. These were previously disallowed. This has no impact on Hemp but could help dispensaries and bottom-line profits for both recreational and medical cannabis.  

  8. Drug testing for employment could well be altered to exclude THC. This will still be up to individual employers, but any policy that only supports testing for Schedule I drugs would, by default, exclude cannabis. Keep in mind that there are companies that require testing for any scheduled drug – including schedule IV benzodiazepines. 

  9. In theory, as a schedule III drug, cannabis could potentially be prescribed by physicians – any physician. Any preparation available for this would first have to go through the FDA approval process. However, in the long term, this creates the possibility for both big pharma involvement in the industry and the requirement for insurance reimbursement for medical cannabis treatment.  I’m not a fan of the former as this could mean a major money grab and even more intense commercialization of the plant and its compounds. But the latter would have obvious benefits for the people that need cannabis the most. There is potential harm in this. That is - big pharma could take over a huge portion of the market and use their virtually unlimited financial resources to shut other players out. Imagine getting a prescription for cannabis gummies – that you have to get at a licensed pharmacy and can have reimbursed by insurance. This, above other considerations, could alter the entire market dramatically – and shift much more of it away from small business and into big business.  

  10. One significant improvement of this rescheduling is, at long last, the federal recognition that there is legitimate medical use for cannabis. An important if under-discussed benefit of this – it opens up cannabis and cannabinoid research. 

Some argue that the DEA rescheduling cannabis changes next to nothing, while others fear that it will alter the entire regulatory environment for medical and recreational states. As with most regulatory changes, the truth will likely fall somewhere in the middle.  While not catastrophic, the changes will likely result in unanticipated consequences, both good and bad.  

What a Difference a Schedule Makes

So, what is Schedule I versus III?  And how many schedules are there?  

There are currently five schedules of controlled substances.  They are:

Schedule I – Drugs scheduled here are not considered safe even under medical supervision, have no medical use and a high potential for abuse and dependency. Cannabis is currently on this list with substances like heroin, LSD, and Ecstasy.  Penalties for possession and trafficking are severe.

Schedule II -  These are considered to have a high potential for abuse which may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence, but they have medical value. Drugs in schedule II are things like Oxycontin, Percocet, opium, morphine, cocaine, and fentanyl. Yes, cannabis is currently scheduled as more dangerous than fentanyl.

Schedule III (proposed landing place for cannabis) – These are considered to have moderate or low physical dependence potential or high psychological dependence. Included here are Ketamine, Vicodin, and Tylenol with Codeine.

Schedule IV – These can and are abused and can be addictive, but less so than the above. Examples are Xanax, Valium, Ativan, and other benzodiazepines. 

Schedule V – These have low potential for abuse and consist primarily of preparations containing limited quantities of certain narcotics. An example is cough syrup with codeine. 

Relative Benefit versus Harm

It seems that cannabis is destined to change from being vilified as a highly dangerous substance with zero relative benefits, to recognition for accepted medical use and moderate dangers. This is progress.  But is Schedule III where cannabis belongs?  

The difference between the relative safety of cannabis and other schedule 1 drugs – and even schedule IV drugs is drastic. I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I think cannabis is as safe as peppermint tea. But the reality is that thousands die from benzos each year, far more from heroin and both prescription and illicit opioids. No one dies from cannabis overdose. 

It is certainly possible to use so much cannabis that your behavior is unsafe and potentially lethal. And there are a very few (less than 500) deaths each year of people with unstable cardiac conditions or similar health risks whose cannabis over-use results in heart attack or other deadly outcomes. I would never want to give the impression that I believe it is not possible for THC to do any harm. It is intoxicating and should be used appropriately in both dose and circumstance. However, it can do immeasurable good for those that use it appropriately.  

To me, comparing other scheduled drugs to cannabis is like comparing a pack of rabid wolves to a single chihuahua.  Sure, the chihuahua can bite, but unless you run off a cliff to escape him, you are going to be fine. 

This is supported by the below chart that compares various substances that are subject to abuse. And interestingly, the most addictive – is not on ANY schedule – and kills more people than all other drugs combined.  

Comparing Addictive Qualities of Popular Drugs Chart

The above chart was created by eminent addictions specialist Jack Henningfeld. He was asked to rate the addictive qualities of popular drugs for the New York Times and produced the ratings according to five general indicators of abuse potential.

There have been many comparisons of cannabis to alcohol that make the argument cannabis should be treated similarly. However, even alcohol, which is not scheduled at all and can be purchased legally by anyone over 21, has some grim statistics about health, ruination, and suffering. Most thought provoking, alcohol has no medical benefit whatsoever. None. It is purely and simply a recreational substance. 

My opinion, as with many in the industry, is that cannabis shouldn’t be scheduled at all.  Legalize, reasonably regulate, and tax.  But, as with most things, incremental change is likely better than no change. While we wait for de-scheduling, the good news is this is a significant step in that direction.  

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