Federal scientists have recommended that marijuana be removed from the Schedule One drug classification according to the newly released documents from the Health and Human Services (HHS). The HHS had sent the 250-page scientific review to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in August 2023 saying that cannabis was not as risky or had the potential for abuse as other Schedule One drugs like heroin. The document was heavily redacted until Texas lawyer Matthew Zorn sued the HHS asking for the full release.
This week, Zorn posted an email he received telling him that his request was moot as the entire document would be released. The document was published online on Friday and according to The New York Times, an HHS official confirmed the document was accurate. The DEA is under pressure to accept the scientist’s findings as it has always followed that department’s recommendations. However, years of a “war on drugs” in the department have created an atmosphere of stigma against cannabis. The DEA was clear recently that despite some members of Congress leaning on the DEA to make progress with the recommendation, it would have the final say in the matter.
The letter noted that the last time the DEA was asked to reschedule cannabis was in 2015 and since then Congress has made changes regarding the classification of cannabis. In addition to that, there have also been medical advances in the use of cannabis. The letter also noted that it would use the term marijuana versus cannabis.
Consideration for Rescheduling
The eight factors according to the letter are the following:
1. Its actual or relative potential for abuse;
2. Scientific evidence of its pharmacological effect, if known;
3. The state of current scientific knowledge regarding the drug or other substance;
4. Its history and current pattern of abuse;
5. The scope, duration, and significance of abuse;
6. What, if any, risk there is to the public health;
7. Its psychic or physiological dependence liability; and
8. Whether the substance is an immediate precursor of a substance already controlled.
The letter specifically stated,
After assessing all available preclinical , clinical, and epidemiological data, FDA recommends that marijuana be rescheduled from Schedule I into Schedule III of the CSA . Schedule III drugs are classified as having a potential for abuse less than the drugs or other substances in schedules I and II, a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States , and moderate or low physical dependence or high psychological dependence that may result from their use. NIDA concurs with this recommendation.
It went on to say, “Based on the totality of the available data, we conclude that there exists some credible scientific support for the medical use of marijuana in at least one of the indications for which there is widespread current experience in the United States.”
Not A Danger
The letter also said that the vast majority of people consuming marijuana are not endangering themselves or others. Indeed, the letter said that alcohol and heroin cause more adverse outcomes. The research ranked alcohol, heroin, and cocaine as more dangerous than marijuana, ranking it much lower.
The research among high school students found that they abused alcohol more than marijuana, and found 52% of high school students were using alcohol versus only 20-22% for marijuana.
Concerning the danger of diversion of research marijuana to regular channels, the research found there was more diversion from state-legal marijuana sources versus federal research marijuana.
The research also determined, “The risks to the public health posed by marijuana are low compared to other drugs of abuse (e.g., heroin, cocaine, benzodiazepines), based on an evaluation of various epidemiological databases for ED visits, hospitalizations, unintentional exposures, and most importantly, for overdose deaths.”
The research also noted that marijuana produces rewarding effects that would be consistent with observed long-term patterns of non-medical use and abuse, both before and in years since enactment of the Controlled Substances Act.
The letter reviewed numerous scientific findings and wrote, “In conclusion, marijuana has hundreds of chemovars containing variable concentrations of THC, cannabinoids, and other compounds. Thus, marijuana is not a single chemical with a consistent and reproducible chemical profile or predictable and consistent clinical effects.”
The HHS letter noted that each state having its own regulations has caused a lack of standardization and that the illicit market had no oversight at all.