The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency recently announced plans to allow more scientists to grow cannabis for research. Historically, cannabis was grown only on the campus of the University of Mississippi, and scientists complained about the quality and variety of available material.
Most commentary on the DEA’s announcement has praised it as a step toward increased cannabis research and potentially toward national cannabis legalization. Though the program could have some positive effects, its overall impact will be negative. The program perpetuates the misconception that cannabis is a harmful illicit substance, and it may further entrench corporate interests in the cannabis industry at the expense of scientific progress and diversity in cannabis research.
The conversation we should be having is about rescheduling cannabis. A significant obstacle to research is the stigma imparted to cannabis by its categorization as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. This category includes drugs such as heroin and the psychedelics psilocybin and MDMA (“ecstasy”). The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration claims Schedule 1 drugs have no currently accepted medical uses and a “high potential for abuse and dependence.”
Moving cannabis to Schedule 2 would put it in the same category as cocaine and fentanyl, which have recognized medical uses despite their tendency to produce physical and psychological dependence. However, because cannabis has fewer and far less severe side effects, it would more appropriately be categorized in Schedule 3 or 4, which contain drugs such as ketamine and Ambien, respectively. But any change in scheduling would make cannabis easier to grow, study and prescribe.
In contrast, if the DEA cannabis program moves forward, and cannabis remains in Schedule 1, universities and other organizations will be deterred from studying it. Though technically they would not break federal law by starting DEA-sanctioned cannabis grow operations, the administration will continue to perceive cannabis as an illicit substance. Less funding will be available for research, and fewer scientists will be willing to study it. In short, rescheduling will de-stigmatize cannabis and make it a legitimate subject of study. The DEA’s research program will not.
Rescheduling is also appropriate because the position that cannabis has no currently accepted medical use, the main rationale for keeping it in Schedule 1, is no longer tenable. In over half the states, cannabis is legal for medical use. Nationwide, thousands of doctors recommend it, and thousands of patients consume it for a variety of conditions including anxiety disorders, pain, cancer and anorexia.
I have previously described Schedule 1 as a regulatory black hole. Once substances are sucked in, they rarely emerge. That is because the barriers to entry are far lower than the barriers for removal, and that needs to change.
The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 gave the U.S. attorney general the power to schedule drugs, and that power has traditionally been delegated to the DEA. Currently, mere anecdotal evidence and scattered case reports appear sufficient for the agency to banish drugs to Schedule 1. But rigorous FDA-sanctioned clinical trials are required to take them out.
The FDA and DEA are currently attempting to put a plant called kratom into Schedule 1, and if they succeed, it could be lost to science for decades. That would be tragic. As U.S. suicide rates continue to rise, and the opioid crisis claims thousands of lives each year, there is an urgent need for new mental-health therapies. Both kratom and cannabis are potential candidates. But branding them as Schedule 1 drugs erects barriers to unlocking their potential.
Similar issues limit research on other Schedule 1 drugs, such as the psychedelics, which have been shown to reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental-health conditions. Though public and scientific attitudes toward these drugs are changing, they remain trapped within Schedule 1’s gravity, which limits research on their therapeutic use.
A related concern is the need for a diversity of voices in cannabis research. If overly restrictive, the DEA’s program will exclude many researchers from contributing to cannabis science. It could privilege large corporations at the expense of minority voices. For decades, the war on drugs has disproportionately impacted vulnerable groups, including racial minorities, and we must take steps to ensure those groups can contribute to cannabis research. If entry to the DEA’s program is overly restrictive, those voices will be further marginalized. Keeping cannabis in Schedule 1 adds to this problem because there are significant costs associated with studying Schedule 1 drugs. Not everyone has access to the required resources.
Instead of creating a program that determines who can grow cannabis, the DEA’s reform efforts should be focused on rescheduling. Right now, the agency has various forms of THC, one of the active ingredients in cannabis, listed in three separate schedules simultaneously, which leads to confusion and unnecessary stigmatization of naturally-occurring forms of the drug.
I am not suggesting that consuming cannabis is without risks, or that it should be legalized for recreational use. Instead, I argue that rescheduling cannabis has few drawbacks. It will accomplish the objectives of the DEA’s program and have numerous positive effects the program cannot achieve.