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Following scientific and medical evaluations into cannabis initiated by President Joe Biden last October, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officially recommended rescheduling the plant from a Schedule I to a Schedule III drug.
If the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agrees with the HHS’s recommendation, it would mark a historic milestone for the cannabis industry in the United States. But many are left wondering: What are Schedule III drugs, and what would rescheduling cannabis as a Schedule III drug do?
Put simply, Schedule III drugs are controlled substances “with a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence,” according to the United States Drug Enforcement Agency.
They’re believed to have a lower potential of abuse than Schedule I and Schedule II drugs but more than Schedule IV drugs.
Cannabis’s Schedule I Classification
Cannabis hasn’t always been illegal in the United States. In fact, it was both legal and used medicinally between 1840 and 1900.
It wasn’t until recreational cannabis use began to increase at the beginning of the 20th century that the plant caught the attention of lawmakers, sparking a slew of state bans.
It was removed from the U.S. Pharmacopeia outright in 1942 and would be federally criminalized under the Narcotic Control Act of 1956 just 14 years later.
Cannabis’s Schedule I status dates back to when President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 into law.
Despite its medicinal applications in the mid-to-late 1800s — and its former inclusion in the U.S. Pharmacopeia — Schedule I controlled substances are described as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” by the DEA.
Examples of Controlled Substances
The Controlled Substances Act introduced five levels of categorization, or “schedules,” under which drugs, substances, and chemicals used to make drugs are federally classified.
Let’s look at examples of drugs in each category and what the DEA says differentiates one schedule of drugs from another.
Schedule I Drugs
The following substances are Schedule I drugs, meaning they have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”
- Bath salts
- Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD)
- MDMA (or “ecstasy”)
- Synthetic marijuana
Schedule II Drugs
Schedule II drugs, or drugs meaning they have “a high potential for abuse, with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence,” include:
Schedule III Drugs
The following substances are Schedule III drugs, meaning they have “moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence.”
- Anabolic steroids
- Products containing less than 90 milligrams of codeine per dosage unit
Schedule IV Drugs
The following substances are Schedule IV drugs, meaning they have “a low potential for abuse and low risk of dependence.”
Schedule V Drugs
The following substances are Schedule V drugs, meaning they have “lower potential for abuse than Schedule IV and consist of preparations containing limited quantities of certain narcotics.”
- Cough preparations with less than 200 milligrams of codeine or per 100 milliliters (Robitussin AC)
What Happens if Cannabis is Rescheduled?
It’s important to note that if cannabis were rescheduled from a Schedule I to a Schedule III drug, that would not mean it was legalized or decriminalized. The change would, however, bring about wide-reaching implications for medical cannabis patients and the American cannabis industry in general.
Perhaps the most significant change cannabis’s rescheduling would bring about is easier accessibility of the plant for research. It can take upwards of 10 years for researchers to obtain the licensure and funding to develop Schedule I therapeutics.
Also, cannabis companies nationwide could make federal tax deductions if the plant were rescheduled — something prohibited for businesses that sell Schedule I or Schedule II drugs.
Less immediate are the long-term effects rescheduling may have on cannabis’s public perception and the stigmas associated with using cannabis. If rescheduled, it would share the same drug categorization as testosterone and anabolic steroids.
The Bottom Line
Whether or not the DEA heeds the recommendation of the HHS is, at present, anyone’s guess. The agency is expected, however, to initiate a separate review into cannabis and will ultimately have the final say in its drug categorization.
If reclassified, it would represent a significant milestone for a plant that most Americans believe should be legalized, taxed, and regulated.