On Wednesday, August 30th, the Department of Health and Human Services made its recommendation to the Drug Enforcement Agency to classify cannabis as a Schedule III drug, paving the way for reform, industry expansion, and research opportunities.
Causing ripples and waves in the cannabis industry, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), one of the top government agencies, has taken the leap on recommending cannabis be rescheduled from a Schedule I drug to a Schedule III drug. The easing of cannabis restrictions is being celebrated from bipartisan lawmakers, such as Senator John Fetterman (D-PA) and Representative Dave Joyce (R-OH), who are also claiming partial credit for HHS’s recent action (1,2), which follows a review request from the Biden Administration last year (3).
“Yesterday’s move is a massive win for the Biden administration and a strong step in the right direction on marijuana policy,” Senator Fetterman said (2). “I’m glad to see that the administration agrees with what we have known for a while: marijuana should not be a Schedule I drug.”
Fetterman added a warning, though, stating (2), “we should also be clear that we have been in this exact spot before, with science on the side of rescheduling, only to have the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] and its destructive ‘War on Drugs’ mindset block reform. That must not happen again.”
Approximately 40 states have supported cannabis by legalizing it in their states either recreationally, medically, or both. Not all states have made legislation to legalize the plant and it is still considered illegal at the federal level which has been severely impacting the industry from moving forward and researching its benefits. Being classified as a Schedule I drug, cannabis is grouped with dangerous drugs such as heroin, LSD, and ecstasy (4). A majority of Americans support cannabis being rescheduled or descheduled because cannabis is not harmful like Schedule I drugs (1).
“This is an important first step on a long road to correct the wrongs in the war on cannabis and prevent the rise of an ineffectively regulated and therefore harmful market,” Representative Dave Joyce said (2). He added that the administration should “take the next forward and partner with Congress” regarding legislation he is sponsoring with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) to equip the government for federal legalization.
HHS’s scheduling recommendation about cannabis was sent over to the DEA due to President Biden’s directive to HHS (1), a spokesperson from the DEA reported.
"As part of this process, HHS conducted a scientific and medical evaluation for consideration by DEA. DEA has the final authority to schedule or reschedule a drug under the Controlled Substances Act. DEA will now initiate its review," a DEA spokesperson said (1).
At the moment, cannabis is labeled as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. This classification is meant for drugs that have a strong potential for abuse and have no accepted medical use (1). The medicinal plant has been shown to produce medical benefits for a variety of health illnesses, such as cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). HHS would like to reschedule cannabis to a lesser label because they believe that the plant has “…a moderate to low potential for dependence and a lower abuse potential,” such as those seen in ketamine and testosterone (1).
“No matter what happens next, the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] has confirmed that cannabis has accepted medical use in the United States,” wrote Steph Sherer, founder of Americans for Safe Access, the nation’s largest member-based organization advocating for medical cannabis and patients (6). “This will no doubt have an impact on attitudes about medical cannabis, reducing the stigma, increasing the acceptance of cannabis for medical professionals, employers, state regulators, and hopefully Congress.”
Sherer also noted that the DEA does not have a set timeframe to issue its own recommendations and it has the authority to hold differing determinations than the HHS (6).
“We believe that rescheduling to Schedule III will mark the most significant federal cannabis reform in modern history,” said Edward Conklin of the US Cannabis Council (5), which is a nonprofit that advocates for the regulated cannabis industry. “President Biden is effectively declaring an end to Nixon’s failed war on cannabis and placing the nation on a trajectory to end prohibition.”
Reclassifying cannabis at the federal level would benefit both the US and foreign companies outside of the country. In the US, major stock exchanges would be able to list corporations that are in the cannabis industry and foreign companies would be able to sell their products as well.
"The administration's process is an independent process led by HHS, led by the Department of Justice and guided by evidence... we will let that process move forward," White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre mentioned (1).
In Canada, cannabis is legal and the country has become a popular location for the cannabis industry for North America. Through this reclassification, companies would be able to expand their businesses to the US once federal legalization is approved. Several companies, such as Canopy Growth, Verano Holdings, Tilray Brands, Sunburn Cannabis, and Cronos Group, have applauded HHS’s recommendation (1).
"For far too long, cannabis prohibition and its outdated status as a schedule I substance have unduly harmed countless individuals affected by the failed War on Drugs," said George Archos, Veranos CEO (1).
Following Wednesday’s announcement of the rescheduling recommendation, shares of several cannabis firms rose (1).