Right on Schedule?

As citizens of California prepare to vote on the legalization of marijuana, the Federal Government is set to decide on whether or not pot should continue to be classified as a top-tier narcotic. But is legalization the solution or a fast track to growing drug use disorders across America?

Since the U.S. Controlled Substances Act of 1970, marijuana has been ranked as a Schedule I drug. A Schedule I ranking is the most restricted category and puts marijuana alongside drugs like heroin, LSD, and peyote. This distinction is reserved exclusively for drugs that have no proven medical use and are highly addictive according to The Drug Enforcement Administration. When considering that almost half of the United States at present allows for the use of medical cannabis, this ranking would seem to be practically obsolete. A number of studies show that there is medical value in treating chronic pain, seizures and a number of other conditions. And while marijuana offers potential risks, especially those prone to mental illness, it has shown to have lower addiction rates than alcohol. (Neither alcohol nor tobacco are on the DEA’s controlled substances list.)

Heroin vs Marijuana

Despite its Schedule I rating, heroin also has a long history of medical use. It is a strong analgesic painkiller and in countries where heroin is legal with a prescription (UK, Netherlands), it is used in the treatment of acute pain conditions such as severe physical trauma/injury, post-surgical pain, heart attack, and cancer pain. Heroin, unlike marijuana, is considered highly addictive and deadly when overdosed. Marijuana, according to the National Cancer Institute, has no overdose risk. Marijuana and heroin affect different pathways of the body. Heroin attaches to opioid receptors which are present in areas of the brain that control breathing – too much of it can cause a person to stop breathing. Marijuana will not cause someone to stop breathing, no matter how much they ingest.

The DEA is set to deliver their decision within the month.

“I think that’s probably an easier sell than the decision coming from doctors and police,” said John Hudak, a deputy director at Brookings Institution in Washington D.C.

What to Consider

There are eight factors the Drug Enforcement Administration considers when scheduling drugs:

  1. The actual and relative potential for abuse
  2. If known, the pharmacological effects backed by scientific evidence
  3. The current state of scientific based knowledge on the drug or substance
  4. The history and current trends of abuse
  5. The details, timeline, and significance of abuse
  6. What, if any, risks this drug could have on public health
  7. Possible psychological or physiological dependence liability
  8. Whether or not the substance is a precursor of a currently controlled substance

What’s interesting about this case, if both the Drug Enforcement and Food and Drug Administrations fail to switch marijuana’s scheduling, is whether Congress can still push for change.

Getting Through Congress

It’s likely that elected officials will be influenced by the growing acceptance of marijuana, especially when representing one of the 25 other states with legal marijuana programs currently in place. Not to mention that opioid-related deaths decreased by 25% in states with medical marijuana programs.

The rescheduling of marijuana is being supported by members of Congress, and like Senator Bernie Sanders, some have even suggested descheduling it. The reality is, none of these efforts have gained much traction and many lack faith that Congress will act on this issue in the near future.

“I’m not aware of a single hearing much less a vote even in a subcommittee that has ever taken place at the congressional level specific to the notion of reclassifying marijuana,” said Paul Armentano of NORML, a cannabis advocacy group.

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  1. Daily News. Is pot as dangerous as heroin? Feds’ decision on rescheduling marijuana coming soon. Retrieved July 11 2016.
  2. Drug Enforcement Administration. Drugs of Abuse: A DEA Resource Guide. Retrieved July 11 2016.
  3. OC Register. Is Marijuana as Dangerous as Heroin, LSD and Peyote? Retrieved July 11, 2016

Is Pot the New Heroin? The DEA to Decide