The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency is about to make a decision that could have wide-ranging implications on the state-sanctioned marijuana industry: to reschedule or not to reschedule marijuana's position as an illegal substance.
Since 1970, marijuana has been on the list of Schedule I drugs, which defines chemicals under the Controlled Substances Act as a drug with high potential for abuse and no medical benefits. Marijuana, heroin, and LSD are Schedule I drugs, while cocaine, methamphetamine, and oxycodone are Schedule II. Drugs are rescheduled often, but marijuana has been deemed a Schedule I substance for 46 years, which makes it illegal to grow, possess, use, or distribute under federal law.
The DEA has already received the Food and Drug Administration's recommendation on the rescheduling, which is a key part of the rescheduling process stipulated by the Controlled Substance Act, says Russell Baer, a special agent at the DEA's office of public affairs. Baer won't reveal what the recommendation was. The DEA will now conduct its own eight-factor analysis to study the drug's potential for abuse, the current state of medical and scientific knowledge, the history and pattern of abuse, and other considerations. Once that is complete, the DEA's administrator, Chuck Rosenberg, makes the final call.
Baer says the decision will be in line with the current scientific and medical findings surrounding marijuana's status as a beneficial drug.
"We are bound by the FDA's scheduling recommendations," says Baer.
If the DEA recommends rescheduling marijuana to II, III, IV, or V, or removing it from the list of controlled substances, any change in designation will have big implications for the legal industry across 23 states and Washington, D.C., says Aeron Sullivan, the co-founder of Tradiv, an online wholesale marketplace for legal marijuana businesses to buy and sell marijuana. If pot is rescheduled, it could also open up the industry to import-export and help increase the potential for a nationwide, regulated market. In short, it could welcome marijuana into the mainstream economy.
But if the DEA decides marijuana is still a Schedule I drug, Baer says the agency will not be dropping down into Colorado, Washington, and Oregon from black helicopters and arresting everyone.
"Even if it remains a Schedule I substance, the DEA will continue to allocate its resources and time to the biggest and most violent drug traffickers," he says, explaining most of the agency's resources are being used to deal with the current opioid epidemic, which kills more people each year than auto accidents.
While the states are technically breaking federal law, the DEA is not going to waste its resources on regulated marijuana industries that have been approved by local voters, Baer says.
Baer wouldn't give a specific date for the decision, but he said the process is nearly complete and the agency is waiting to hear Rosenberg's decision whether marijuana is considered a medicine or if it's still a dangerous substance.
While the DEA continues to deliberate the rescheduling of cannabis, the agency will continue to support increased medical and scientific studies on weed, says Baer.
According to the DEA, the total number of Schedule I researchers registered to study marijuana and its extracts, concentrates, and active compounds has increased from 161 in April 2014 to 344 in March 2016, an increase of more than 113 percent.
Baer said the DEA is also working to build an on-line application system for researchers to apply for a Schedule I researcher registration to make the application and review process easier and to promote more scientific and medical research on the plant.