America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is advocating for the reclassification of marijuana to a lower-risk drug category in light of new scientific research.
Currently categorized as Schedule I, which is reserved for the most dangerous controlled substances like heroin, marijuana’s classification may soon shift to Schedule III, based on scientific evidence supporting its lower potential for abuse compared to other substances under the same restrictions.
Researchers from the US Food and Drug Administration have presented documents supporting this reclassification.
It all started in 2022, when President Joe Biden directed US Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and the attorney general to initiate a review of marijuana’s federal scheduling.
HHS Assistant Secretary for Health, Adm. Rachel Levine, voiced her support for reclassifying marijuana as Schedule III in a letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in August.
Schedule III includes drugs with a “moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence,” such as ketamine, testosterone, and Tylenol with codeine.
The FDA documents, available online, represent the HHS’s assessment of scientific and medical evidence, culminating in a recommendation for rescheduling to the Department of Justice.
The FDA’s Controlled Substance Staff, in these documents, cites three key reasons for recommending marijuana’s rescheduling. First, it exhibits a lower potential for abuse compared to substances in Schedules I and II.
Second, it has a recognized medical application for treatment in the United States. Third, it poses a low to moderate risk of physical dependence in those who misuse it—a view corroborated by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Despite widespread nonmedical use of marijuana in the US, the researchers observe that it does not lead to severe outcomes when compared to drugs like heroin, oxycodone, and cocaine, especially considering the availability of high-THC products.
Furthermore, the data provides credible scientific support for some therapeutic applications of marijuana, including addressing anorexia, pain, and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. However, the researchers emphasize that their analysis does not imply the establishment of safety and efficacy for marijuana use in specific health conditions.
The researchers also note that marijuana withdrawal symptoms are relatively mild in heavy, chronic users and are similar in magnitude and duration to withdrawal symptoms from synthetic THC drugs like Marinol and Syndros, both approved by the FDA. These symptoms contrast with the more severe withdrawal seen with alcohol use.
Rescheduling marijuana could have several implications, including enabling more research opportunities, easing banking restrictions for cannabis businesses, and relieving firms of a decades-old tax code that limits deductions and credits related to sales of Schedule I and II substances.
Currently, 24 states, two territories, and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational cannabis use for adults, while 38 states permit medical cannabis use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Since Colorado’s first adult-use cannabis sale in 2014, the cannabis industry has grown into a multibillion-dollar sector attracting interest from multinational companies spanning alcohol, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and tobacco.
The DEA holds the ultimate authority to decide on any changes to marijuana’s scheduling, subject to a rulemaking process that includes a public comment period before any action is finalized.