In early October, President Joe Biden granted a pardon to all people convicted previously of federal offenses of simple marijuana possession.
In that same statement, he called on the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General to begin reviewing how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.
Currently, cannabis/marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug, meaning it defined as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” This is the same designation given to LSD, heroin and ecstasy.
It’s also a designation that many marijuana researchers disagree with.
“The current classification of cannabis as a Schedule I drug doesn’t make sense. … It does have medicinal properties and a pretty low potential of abuse,” said Carrie Cuttler, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Washington State University and a researcher involved with the university’s Center for Cannabis Policy, Research, and Outreach.
While cannabis and marijuana are often used interchangeably, cannabis refersTrusted Source to all products from the Cannabis Sativa plant and marijuana refersTrusted Source to the parts of the plant with higher amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Hemp is also technically cannabis but if it contains less than 0.3% THC it is not classified as a Schedule I drug due to the 2018 Farm Bill which legalized the production and sale of low-THC hemp plants and compounds.
Schedule I classification hinders marijuana and cannabis research
Cuttler and other researchers say that the Schedule I classification of cannabis/marijuana limits research that can be done on its effects, including the effects of high-potency products available to adult consumers in many states.
“To do research that involves administration of cannabis to a human participant, you have to have three levels of [federal] approval,” said R. Lorraine Collins, PhD, a professor and associate dean for research in the University at Buffalo’s School of Public Health and Health Professions.
These approvals come from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). In addition, researchers need to obtain approvals from their own institution and state government.
This process can add months to the front end of a research study.
“To have a study take a year-and-a-half to get off the ground is a major problem, because our studies take a year to three years to complete,” said Cuttler. “So [these approvals are] substantially delaying the whole process.”
In addition, the Schedule I classification — the DEA’s most strict level — means researchers must keep cannabis/marijuana products in a securely locked cabinet. Research laboratories working with these products are also subject to inspection visits from the DEA.
In contrast, alcohol, which is not a scheduled substance, doesn’t require this same level of security, in spite of it having harmful effects for many people.
“For my research [with alcohol], I can go to a retail outlet, buy whatever alcohol I need for my study, and keep it in a refrigerator in the lab,” said Collins.
She said one type of research that has been hindered by the Schedule I status of cannabis/marijuana is studies looking at the effect of cannabis use on driving performance, including alongside alcohol.
Some people report driving under the influence of both cannabis/marijuana and alcohol, which raises the question: is it the cannabis/marijuana that leads to impaired driving, the alcohol, or the combination of the two drugs?
“Without those three levels of federal approval, a researcher cannot administer cannabis — with or without alcohol — to someone and have them drive a route on a driving simulator,” said Collins.
As a result, questions about the impact of cannabis/marijuana on driving are more difficult to answer.
- President Joe Biden has called on officials to review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.
- Currently, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug.
- This is defined as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”