Proposed Marijuana Rescheduling Doesn't Follow the Science | Opinion

Tue, Sep 12
Key Points
  • The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has urged the DEA to reschedule marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III, a move that is seen as politically motivated.
  • The recommendation comes after a rushed analysis from the FDA and contradicts previous evaluations that found overwhelming evidence for marijuana to remain in Schedule I.
  • Today's marijuana is highly potent and can lead to psychosis, anxiety, paranoia, and addiction.
  • Rescheduling marijuana to Schedule III would benefit the industry financially but could have negative consequences, including increased promotion to children. DEA has the opportunity to prioritize public health over profits.

Now is not the time to change our national health mantra from "follow the science" to "follow the polls." But that appears to be the motivation behind the August 29 announcement by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that it submitted a letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) urging the agency to reschedule marijuana to Schedule III, one of the lowest schedules available, from the strictest category, Schedule I, where the drug has sat for more than 50 years.

This proposed change, like the drug up for discussion, doesn't smell right. It comes just after intense pressure from pro-marijuana politicians in Congress and soon before a national presidential election. The precise timing of the announcement (HHS released it at 4:20pm) will make potheads around the country nod in approval, but DEA should reject this recommendation.

The recommendation comes after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) completed a supposedly exhaustive (but in reality rushed) "eight-factor analysis" to determine the new schedule. One wonders how it got there. The Obama administration last evaluated the drug in 2016 and found overwhelming evidence marijuana should remain in its current schedule. And any scientist following the latest research will tell you that today's new, highly potent, THC-laden marijuana has only gotten much more damaging. To think the opposite, now implied by the new recommendation, is to employ the logic of Cheech and Chong.

What is Schedule III? It's the category for drugs that have less abuse potential than Schedule I and II drugs like heroin, cocaine, LSD, and various opiates. Schedule III drugs include prescription steroids and some depressants not preferred by those with a drug use disorder (those are in Schedule II).

Some might think Schedule III is appropriate given marijuana's mild reputation. But today's marijuana is anything but mild: new research has found that users of high-potency THC products are nearly five times more likely to develop psychosis than nonusers. The NIH has warned that "higher doses of THC are more likely to produce anxiety, agitation, paranoia, and psychosis." Use also increases suicide risk several times over.

Higher use rates correspond to increases in adverse effects, from large increases in adolescent ER visits and increased hyperemesis syndrome (chronic vomiting) to higher marijuana addiction rates. And yes, marijuana is addictive. Studies show as many as one in three past-year users have cannabis use disorder, and a new study released last week from Washington state shows legalization has increased marijuana addiction.

Schedule III is also a head-scratcher because marijuana per se is not an FDA-approved drug. Schedule III drugs are all individually approved products traced by the government and tracked by pharmacies. No reasonable person thinks the FDA will now flex its enforcement power and do what DEA has never done—shut down all pot shops in noncompliance.

But this new schedule would allow the industry to deduct ordinary business expenses, as it would no longer be subject to Section 280E of the IRS regulations, which stops businesses from deducting expenses related to the trafficking of Schedule I drugs. This would make the marijuana industry much more profitable. Expect it to deduct ad expenses and widely promote THC-laced gummies, candies, and other products appealing to kids—the last thing this country needs. Like its Big Tobacco predecessor, the marijuana industry is predatory—it feeds a business model focused on serving high-frequency, high-potency users. It targets people of color: pot shops are concentrated in poorer neighborhoods (as liquor stores are) and the people benefiting from this new industry certainly do not come from those communities. It is hardly a beacon of social justice.

Medical formulations of THC are currently available on Schedule III for legitimate medical use. That does not need to change. But there is no reason to pretend marijuana is less harmful today than it was before.

It is highly unusual for one agency to announce—let alone at 4:20, the official "stoner hour"—a scheduling recommendation to another agency. In doing so, HHS put DEA in a difficult public position as the latter considers next steps, and factors outside of the HHS analysis, as the law allows it to do. Now, DEA has a chance to send a message that our kids' future is more important than this industry's bottom line. Let's hope it makes the right choice.

Kevin Sabet, Ph.D. is a former three-time White House drug policy advisor and the President of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), the nation's leading alliance of organizations and individuals dedicated to a health-first approach to marijuana policy.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.