By Dr. Mercola
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is planning to reconsider its classification of marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance — a classification, many would argue, it should not have been given in the first place.
Marijuana is legal for medical use in 23 states and Washington D.C. and legal for recreational use in four states. Other states, such as Ohio, may soon follow suit.
In Ohio, polls show a majority of residents favor the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes and the Ohio House has introduced a bill that would do just that, potentially by summer.1
On a federal level, however, the herb is still considered a Schedule 1 controlled substance alongside other Schedule 1 drugs like heroin, LSD, Ecstasy, methaqualone and peyote.
How Marijuana Became a Controlled Substance
Marijuana received this label in 1970 when the Controlled Substance Act was enacted. This act labeled marijuana as a drug with a "high potential for abuse" and "no accepted medical use" — the latter of which, in particular, is being increasingly disproven.
Since the beginning, marijuana prohibition has not been a matter of public health and safety but one of political purpose. According to Scientific American:2
"Marijuana was placed in Schedule I in 1971 provisionally, until the science could be assessed.
But Pres. Richard Nixon saw pot prohibition as a way to destroy the antiwar left, according to clandestine recordings made by Nixon in the White House as well as statements from his staff to the press.
… The Shafer Commission [formerly The National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse] found in 1972 that cannabis was as safe as alcohol, and recommended ending prohibition in favor of a public health approach.
But by then the Federal Bureau of Narcotics had been removed from the Treasury Department and merged into the U.S. Department of Justice — where Nixon's ally, Attorney General John Mitchell, placed cannabis in Schedule I in 1972; that same year he resigned to head Nixon's re-election committee.
(He later stood trial in 1974 over the Watergate scandal and served 19 months of a prison sentence for conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice.)"
FDA Gave New Marijuana Rescheduling Recommendations to the DEA
The DEA uses advice from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Department of Health and Human Services and others to decide on drug scheduling (although ultimately they may or may not side with that advice).
Both the FDA and the Department of Health and Human Services have given the DEA new recommendations on rescheduling marijuana, but what those recommendations are is a mystery at this time. The FDA reportedly has concluded a review of the safety of medical marijuana.
Did the FDA finally acknowledge that classifying marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance is ludicrous?
Only time will tell, but by some estimates a decision may be made by summer 2016. Historian Martin Lee, author of "Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana," called marijuana's Schedule I classification a "national embarrassment." He told Scientific American:3
"It gives new meaning to the phrase, 'the big lie.' It's like saying, 'The moon is made of green cheese.' That this could remain until the present day is laughable only in that it keeps you from crying."
Follow the Science: Is Marijuana Medically Useful?
Russ Baer, staff coordinator in the Office of Congressional and Public Affairs at the DEA told Scientific American that the final decision on whether to reclassify a drug comes down to science. "That's the foundation of the argument. We're bound by that scientific and medical evaluation," he said.4
So let's take a look at what the science says regarding marijuana's medical usefulness. Marijuana was a popular botanical medicine in the 19th and early 20th centuries, common in U.S. pharmacies of the time (and its use can actually be dated back to 2700 BC5).
Today a wealth of research shows marijuana does have outstanding promise as a medicinal plant, largely due to its cannabidiol (CBD) content. Cannabinoids interact with your body by way of naturally occurring cannabinoid receptors embedded in cell membranes throughout your body.
There are cannabinoid receptors in your brain, lungs, liver, kidneys, immune system, and more. Both the therapeutic and psychoactive properties of marijuana occur when a cannabinoid activates a cannabinoid receptor.
Research is still ongoing on just how extensive their impact is on our health, but to date it's known that cannabinoid receptors play an important role in many body processes, including metabolic regulation, cravings, pain, anxiety, bone growth, and immune function.6
Some of the strongest research to date is focused on marijuana for pain relief and better sleep. In one study, just three puffs of marijuana a day for five days helped those with chronic nerve pain to relieve pain and sleep better.7
Americans for Safe Access also has links to research studies suggesting cannabis may help in the treatment or prevention of Alzheimer's disease, cancer and other chronic diseases.8
Does Marijuana Have a 'High Potential for Abuse?'
In 1944, the La Guardia Committee report from the New York Academy of Medicine found marijuana was not physically addictive, did not act as a gateway drug and did not lead to crime.9
The Federal Bureau of Narcotics dismissed the report and marijuana has been labeled as a gateway drug ever since. This is ironic since prescription painkillers — not marijuana — have been tagged as gateway drugs to heroin.
Oxycodone, fentanyl, and meperidine (Demerol), which are among the most commonly abused opioids and leading causes of opioid overdose deaths, are Schedule II drugs, meaning they should technically be less dangerous than marijuana, a Schedule I drug.
Meanwhile, until recently certain opioid prescription drugs such as Vicodin were classified as Schedule III substances, which are defined as "drugs with a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence." In reality, such drugs are among the most addictive and dangerous on the market.
In 2014, nearly 30,000 people died from heroin and opioid (also called narcotic prescription painkillers) overdoses.10 Meanwhile, one study found "little, if any effect of marijuana use on… mortality in men and… women."11
Adding even more credence to marijuana legalization, in states where medical marijuana is legal overdose deaths from opioids like morphine, oxycodone and heroin decreased by an average of 20 percent after one year, 25 percent after two years and up to 33 percent by years five and six.12
Even the American Academy of Pediatrics Recommended DEA Reclassify Marijuana
In January 2015, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) updated their policy statement on marijuana, acknowledging that cannabinoids from marijuana "may currently be an option for … children with life-limiting or severely debilitating conditions and for whom current therapies are inadequate."13
While frowning on recreational use, the AAP gave their "strong" support for research and development as well as a "review of policies promoting research on the medical use of these compounds."
They recommended downgrading marijuana from a schedule I drug to a schedule II drug in order to facilitate increased research. The fact is, research to date has been very promising, but there's still a lot we don't know.
A large part of why there are so many unanswered questions about marijuana's health potential is because it has been strictly controlled by the government, even when it comes to carefully controlled research.
Will the DEA Reclassify Marijuana?
This is not the first time the DEA has been petitioned to reschedule marijuana. In 1988, DEA administrative law judge Francis Young recommended unscheduling cannabis altogether in response to an activist-group petition. He ruled that "marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. By any measure of rational analysis marijuana can be safely used within a supervised routine of medical care."14
The DEA denied the petition, along with a handful of others thereafter. Even when the Institute of Medicine acknowledged marijuana as a substance with medical uses and relatively low potential for abuse, the DEA again denied the resulting petitions, citing a lack of research — research that is being stymied by the nonsensical schedule I classification.
It is a remarkable shame, especially when medical marijuana has shown such promise for pain relief and conditions like epilepsy. The Epilepsy Foundation is among the growing number of groups that has called for increased medical marijuana access and research, which could be granted should the DEA finally reschedule the plant.
The fact that marijuana is just that — a plant — is another bone of contention with proponents of legalization. Rather than being rescheduled, The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) believes that marijuana should be descheduled entirely. Jon Kennedy, board of directors spokesperson for North Carolina NORM, told the Daily Tarheel:15
"We believe it should just be treated as any other natural growing plant … The toxicity is very low compared to a lot of pharmaceutical drugs that are used on a regular basis."