Some people are asking if President Obama will reschedule marijuana before he leaves office, and whether the marijuana reform movement should make rescheduling a major priority.
Although rescheduling would be huge politically – the federal government finally admitting marijuana has medical value – rescheduling wouldn’t actually help patients in the short term, and might do more harm than good if it distracts from real reform.
Marijuana is currently in Schedule I, the classification for drugs that are supposedly highly addictive and have no medical value. While marijuana certainly does not belong in this category, simply rescheduling it would not make it available for medical use.
Various marijuana strains would still have to go through the FDA process individually – which would take years (easily a decade or more) at a cost of millions of dollars. And even then only that particular strain and/or delivery device would be available.
Rescheduling also doesn’t remove all the barriers to research that prevent the kind of clinical trials needed to move particular marijuana products through the FDA system. If these barriers, such as the DEA / NIDA monopoly on marijuana production, are eliminated, then the FDA could look at research and schedule new marijuana-based drugs accordingly. Removing barriers to research could naturally lead to rescheduling, but rescheduling doesn’t naturally lead to removal of all research barriers.
Rescheduling also doesn’t change federal criminal penalties. It would still be illegal under federal law to possess, manufacture or distribute marijuana. The DEA could still raid medical marijuana dispensaries. The Justice Department could still prosecute patients and caregivers and take their property through asset forfeiture.
The one important thing rescheduling could do is solve the 280(e) tax issue that dispensaries face, allowing them to deduct business expenses from their taxes like any other business. The current tax burden makes it hard for dispensaries to stay in business to help their patients, and it is used as a weapon by the IRS to undermine medical marijuana. The 280(e) issue is only solved, however, if marijuana is rescheduled to Schedule III or below.
DPA believes that patients must have safe and immediate access to medical marijuana, including the ability to cultivate it in their own homes; that existing state medical marijuana programs, including those with functioning dispensaries, must be protected; that all barriers to marijuana research must be eliminated; that marijuana is of acceptable safety to be regulated more or less like alcohol; and that states which have decided to regulate marijuana for adult use, should be allowed to do so without federal interference.
To these ends, DPA supports the de-scheduling, or complete removal, of marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act and its regulation for adult consumption in a manner similar to alcohol. De-scheduling can only occur through Congressional action.
If marijuana is rescheduled instead of descheduled, then that should be done as part of broader reform. That reform should include removing barriers to research and changing the Controlled Substances Act to exempt people in compliance with their state marijuana laws from federal arrest and prosecution.
Rescheduling marijuana would be a victory for commonsense drug policy, acknowledging the weight of the scientific evidence and possibly eliminating important tax barriers. But rescheduling without enacting broader reforms wouldn’t make marijuana legally available or reduce the problems associated with marijuana prohibition.
Bill Piper is the director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. You can follow him on Twitter @billjpiper