For the past 6 months, the marijuana industry has been waiting with bated breath to hear whether or not the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) will change the scheduling for cannabis in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). As an average cannabis consumer, you might not know why that incremental change is important.
Here are 5 reasons why rescheduling matters, according to John Hudak - the Brookings Institution's Senior Fellow in Governance Studies and Deputy Director of the Center for Effective Public Management, based on a paper that Hudak co-wrote with Grace Wallack for the Brookings Institution as well as our own conversations with him.
1. Marijuana will officially be safer than heroin
Even an ardent drug enforcer like DEA head Chuck Rosenberg can recognize that marijuana isn't as dangerous as heroin. Yet the federal government lumps the two together in the CSA's Schedule I category, which means that they define cannabis as a dangerous substance with no medical value.
Changing cannabis to Schedule II doesn't mean that the government considers marijuana benign. But it would give researchers more freedom to study and test its its health benefits and risks, according to John Hudak.
"Schedule I makes cannabis research difficult in terms of costs, paperwork and bureaucratic procedure," he told Civilized. "The way the federal government restricts access, each type of substance has its own rules that apply to who can handle the substances or even be in the same lab as certain substances....For Schedule I, everyone in the lab has to be approved."
According to The Washington Post's Christopher Ingraham, it commonly takes researchers up to seven years to get full approval to conduct their research. But rescheduling would change that. "There are fewer obstacles to conducting research on drugs in Schedule II," Hudak wrote.
2. Rescheduling isn't legalizing
Changing cannabis to Schedule II would open the door to the federal government recognizing marijuana as medicine, but it wouldn't legalize medical marijuana in all 50 states immediately.
"Rescheduling does not automatically create an FDA-approved marijuana pharmaceutical," according to Hudak.
So before doctors can officially prescribe marijuana, the FDA would have to approve it as medicine. Right now, doctors in states that have legalized medical marijuana can only recommend that patients use cannabis to treat their conditions. They can't prescribe it.
And even if the FDA does approve marijuana, it would still be difficult to access. Hudak wrote, "FDA-approved derivatives of the substance are available for prescription with the highest level of restrictions" because Schedule II drugs - which include cocaine and oxycodone - are still considered dangerous.
3. Business as usual in legal states
When news of rescheduling broke, so did fears that the new classification would result in a DEA crackdown on states selling marijuana for medical or recreational purposes.
"The worry is that this administrative change will make marijuana pharmaceuticals legal, and thus require all such products to be removed from the market until FDA approval is granted," Hudak wrote. "And of course, clinical drug testing and FDA approval often takes years and hundreds of millions (if not more) dollars in research—something cannabusinesses can't afford and time medical marijuana patients don't have."
But Hudak says that states will continue operating in a legal gray area as before. The memos, riders and other administrative procedures protecting recreational and medical industries are still in place. Meanwhile, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have both indicated that they will likely follow the Obama administration's policy of allowing states to legalize marijuana.
4. Rescheduling changes perceptions
So changing marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II doesn't change much for the average marijuana consumer. But it would change cultural perceptions of cannabis, Hudak says.
"[Marijuana's Schedule I status] creates cultural biases in universities and research institutions," Hudak told Civilized. "Universities are pretty conservative places in terms of risk-taking. Donors may not be interested in funding a university researching marijuana because it is a harmful drug with no medical value according to the federal drug scheduling."
But reclassifying marijuana as a Schedule II drug can help overcome those biases. "That declaration alone can change the way in which a substance is perceived, eliminating some of those cultural biases."
In his Brookings article, he added, "Recognizing that medical marijuana is a valuable subject for research is not an inconsequential statement for the government, and will eventually help millions of patients and families."
5. Rescheduling might not be necessary
The government might not need to reschedule cannabis at all.
Congressman Andy Harris (R-Maryland) and Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) have recently sponsored a bill that would give cannabis exceptional status within the Schedule I category. The proposed law would expand the number of producers growing cannabis for medical research and make access to studying marijuana easier by lifting many restrictions and levels of review for cannabis projects.
The bill stands a chance of getting serious consideration thanks to the support of Harris a.k.a. "Congress's most vocal opponent of legal marijuana," according to the Post's Ingraham.
For more on this potentially game changing legislation (and why a prohibitionist is backing it), check out Ingraham's article.