The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has recommended that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reclassify cannabis from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act to a Schedule III substance, according to Bloomberg, which obtained a document sent to Anne Milgram, head of the DEA, from an official at HHS.
Currently, cannabis is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance, which designates it as a drug with no currently accepted medical use and that carries a high potential for abuse. Therefore, the manufacture, sale, or possession of cannabis is federally illegal, even for personal medical purposes. A schedule III substance is an FDA-approved drug that offers moderate-to-low potential for physical and psychological dependence and that is legal with a prescription.
Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association [NCIA], says that moving cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule III would mean that the federal government is acknowledging the medical efficacy and relative safety of cannabis for the first time since President Nixon declared the war on drugs in 1971.
However, he added, a rescheduling would still not resolve the fact that federal law is in conflict with the vast majority of state laws that allow some form of legal cannabis to be sold through state-licensed facilities, including the current 23 states that have legalized cannabis for nonmedical purposes. “The only way to fully harmonize state and federal laws is to remove cannabis from the federal Controlled Substances Act and regulate cannabis in a manner similar to alcohol, and [the NCIA] consider[s] the move to reschedule as a step toward that goal,” Smith tells Food Quality & Safety.
A move to Schedule III would open the door for cannabis-derived pharmaceutical products to more easily come to market by undergoing FDA’s new drug approval process; however, says Smith, “the cannabis industry as we know it is not positioned to navigate that process nor are most cannabis consumers likely to shift from whole plant cannabis products to a pharmaceutical alternative; therefore, the impact [of a reclassification] on the cannabis edible and beverage space would likely be limited, as these businesses that are currently violating federal law with a Schedule I drug will be doing so with a Schedule III drug after rescheduling.”
Currently, it’s unknown whether FDA would begin to take enforcement actions against the industry once it is placed in a Schedule III classification. Smith considers this an unlikely outcome, given the enormous public support for the legal industry. “One big positive impact of rescheduling is that state-legal cannabis businesses would be able to take business deductions on their federal taxes, as Tax Code Section 280E would no longer apply,” Smith adds. “This is unquestionably a big step forward for the industry and for supporters of cannabis reform. Rescheduling would not bring cannabis policy into the modern age, but it does move us in that direction.”