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U.S. Takes Steps Towards Marijuana Rescheduling: What It Means and What’s at Stake

In a groundbreaking move, the White House has initiated proceedings to ease federal restrictions on cannabis, signaling a potential shift in the country’s approach to marijuana policy. The proposal, spearheaded by Attorney General Merrick Garland, seeks to reclassify marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule III substance under the Controlled Substance Act, a move that hasn’t been undertaken in over five decades.

This proposal, while groundbreaking, is merely the first step in a complex and lengthy approval process. The Department of Health and Human Services must first submit its opinion on the matter to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Following this, a 60-day public comment period will be held after the proposal is published in the Federal Register. Finally, a judge will review the proposal, deciding whether to approve it or proceed with a hearing.

Importance of Rescheduling

The Controlled Substances Act categorizes drugs into five schedules based on factors such as potential for abuse, accepted medical use, and addiction potential. Since its enactment, marijuana has remained a Schedule I substance, alongside drugs like heroin and LSD. Proponents of cannabis reform argue that this classification fails to recognize the potential medical benefits of marijuana.

The rescheduling of marijuana to Schedule III would mark a significant acknowledgment by the U.S. government of its potential medical benefits, paving the way for increased research and exploration into its therapeutic properties. Conditions such as improved sleep and reduced anxiety in lower doses (but increased it in higher doses) have been reported anecdotally, and rescheduling would provide the necessary resources to substantiate these claims through rigorous scientific study.

Critics’ Perspectives

Despite the potential benefits, critics express concerns about the proposed rescheduling. They argue that Schedule III drugs, while recognized for their medical applications, still carry risks of abuse and addiction. Citing information from organizations like the National Institute on Drug Abuse, critics highlight the negative effects associated with marijuana use, including impaired memory, cognitive difficulties, and adverse impacts on brain development.

Kevin Sabet, President and CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, warns against the dangers of normalizing marijuana use, particularly among adolescents. He cautions that the proposal could lead to increased exposure to marijuana advertising and exacerbate issues related to addiction and mental health. Sabet also raises concerns about the rise of potent synthetic cannabinoids, suggesting that the proposal may be ill-timed given the current landscape of drug use.

Critics further point to potential economic motivations behind the proposal, including tax breaks for marijuana businesses and the involvement of pharmaceutical companies in the cannabis industry. They caution against prioritizing financial gain over public health, particularly among vulnerable populations such as youth.

This area remains murky, however, as manifested, among other examples, by research results on the public health effects of legalizing marijuana, published in the Journal of Economic Literature in March 2023. 

Authors D. Mark Anderson and Daniel I. Rees write:

[R]esearchers have produced little credible evidence to suggest that legalization promotes marijuana use among teenagers. Likewise, there is convincing evidence that young adults consume less alcohol when medical marijuana is legalized. For other public health outcomes such as mortality involving prescription opioids, the effect of legalizing medical marijuana has proven more difficult to gauge and, as a consequence, we are less comfortable drawing firm conclusions. Finally, it is not yet clear how legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes will affect these and other important public health outcomes.

Looking Ahead

While the proposal represents a significant step towards marijuana reform in the United States, it is just the beginning of a complex journey. As attitudes towards marijuana continue to evolve, it’s essential to consider the potential benefits and risks associated with its use. Responsible regulation, informed by scientific evidence and public health considerations, will be crucial in navigating this changing landscape. Ultimately, the impact of marijuana rescheduling will depend on how policymakers balance the pursuit of medical innovation with concerns about addiction, public safety, and social equity.

Written by Tatyana Meshcheryakova. First published May 6, 2024.


“White House Plans To Reschedule Marijuana,” Addiction Center, May 3, 2024.

“The Public Health Effects of Legalizing Marijuana,” Journal of Economic Literature, March 2023.

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