Marijuana: How its reclassification by the DEA could impact Americans

Sources with the Associated Press report on April 30 that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration will move to reclassify marijuana.

The agency’s move, which was confirmed by five people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive regulatory review, clears the last significant regulatory hurdle before the agency’s biggest policy change in more than 50 years can take effect.

Here's what it can mean for everyday Americans.

What's going to change?

The proposal reportedly calls for the reclassification of marijuana from its current status as a Schedule I drug to a Schedule III drug, under the frameworks established by the Controlled Substances Act.

A report published by the Congressional Research Service states that marijuana has been classified as a Schedule I drug since 1970.

Schedule I? Schedule III? What does that mean?

The Drug Enforcement Administration's website states that "drugs, substances, and certain chemicals used to make drugs are classified into five distinct categories or schedules depending upon the drug’s acceptable medical use and the drug’s abuse or dependency potential."

The categories, named Schedules I to V, can be found under the Controlled Substances Act, with Schedule I drugs being deemed to have "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse," while Schedule V is deemed as "drugs with lower potential for abuse than Schedule IV and consist of preparations containing limited quantities of certain narcotics."

Schedule III drugs, meanwhile, are determined to be "drugs with a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence."

What drugs are classified as a scheduled drug?

The DEA's website lists a number of drugs that are scheduled. They include:

Schedule I

Heroin, marijuana, peyote, and ecstasy (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), among others.

Schedule II

Adderall, cocaine, fentanyl, and ritalin, among others.

Schedule III

Products containing less than 90 milligrams of codeine per dosage unit, such as Tylenol with codeine, ketamine, testosterone, among others.

Schedule IV

Ativan, Ambien, Valium, and Xanax, among others.

Schedule V

The website states that drugs in this schedule are "generally used for antidiarrheal, antitussive, and analgesic purposes." One of the drugs listed in this section is "cough preparations with less than 200 milligrams of codeine or per 100 milliliters," The website lists Robitussin AC as one such drug.

Other drugs in this category include Lomotil, which treats diarrhea, and Lyrica, which is used to "treat pain caused by nerve damage due to diabetes, shingles infection, or spinal cord injury."

Why reclassify marijuana now?

Marijuana (Georgia Army National Guard photo by Maj. Will Cox/Released)

Marijuana (Georgia Army National Guard photo by Maj. Will Cox/Released)

There have been efforts in recent years to reclassify marijuana to a different schedule.

In 2016, we reported that the DEA may reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug. While that ultimately did not happen, another effort to reclassify marijuana began in 2022, when President Joe Biden announced he will issue an executive order pardoning all people convicted of simple marijuana possession under federal law, while also directing the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Attorney General to review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.

In 2023, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services delivered a recommendation to the DEA that calls for marijuana to be reclassified as a Schedule III drug.

Even prior to President Biden's call for a review of how marijuana is scheduled, there had been criticisms over the drug-scheduling mechanism, with center-right policy institute American Action Forum stating in 2020 that classifying marijuana as a Schedule I drug has "largely stalled marijuana research" and made it ‘more difficult to understand the consequences of marijuana use and its potential for chronic pain control.’

One article published on University of Arizona's website in 2023 also noted a dichotomy between marijuana's status as a Schedule I drug and the Food and Drug Administration's decision to approve four cannabis-derived or cannabis-related medications, with the author stating that science has shown that some parts of the Cannabis sativa plant do indeed have medicinal value.

So, what's gonna happen now?

The AP states that DEA's proposal will need to be reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Once they sign off, the DEA will be able to take public comment on their plan, and the agency would publish the final rule after the public comment period and a review by an administrative judge.

What's the state of marijuana in the U.S. right now?

According to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures, 24 states, two territories (Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands), and the District of Columbia have legalized "small amounts of cannabis (marijuana) for adult recreational use." These states also have medical marijuana programs.

The report also mentioned 14 states and two territories (Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands) that have what they call a "comprehensive medical cannabis program," but no legalized recreational marijuana regime.

Does reclassification mean marijuana is about to be legalized?

No, the move would not legalize marijuana outright.

However, the CRS report states that in each budget cycle since the 2014 fiscal year, Congress has passed a budget proviso that barred the Department of Justice from using taxpayer dollars to prevent states from ‘implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.'

"Courts have interpreted the appropriations rider to prohibit federal prosecution of state-legal activities involving medical marijuana," read a portion of the report.

In addition, recent presidential administrations have not prioritized prosecution of state-legal marijuana activities.

So, what's the impact of rescheduling marijuana?

A bag of

A bag of 'flower,' or marijuana bud. (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

The CRS report states that since certain criminal penalties for violation of the Controlled Substances Act differ depending on the schedule in which a particular substance is classified, a reclassification of marijuana could reduce the penalty for certain offenses.

Businesses could deduct business expenses on federal tax returns, according to the report, as the current ban on business deductions in the Internal Revenue code applies to any trade or business that ‘consists of trafficking in controlled substances (within the meaning of schedule I and II of the Controlled Substances Act) which is prohibited by Federal law or the law of any State in which such trade or business is conducted.’

There could also be negative impacts from a potential rescheduling, with critics pointing out that the roughly 15,000 cannabis dispensaries in the U.S. would have to register with the DEA like regular pharmacies and fulfill strict reporting requirements, something that they are loath to do and that the DEA is ill equipped to handle.

A rescheduling of marijuana could also run afoul of the country's international treaty obligations, with the AP stating that a 1961 convention on narcotic drugs requires the criminalization of cannabis.

What do people think about marijuana?

Figures from a Gallup Poll conducted in October 2023 show that 70% of Americans surveyed think marijuana use should be legal.

When Gallup first asked about marijuana legalization in 1969, only 12% of those surveyed backed such a move.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)