At time of this writing, 29 states have legalized medical marijuana, while eight have legalized the recreational use of the drug by adults. Despite the trend toward legalization, however, the United States government classifies cannabis as a Schedule 1 illegal drug. But what does that mean? And what are drug schedules, anyway?
In classifying marijuana under Schedule 1, not only has the government declared pot to have no health benefits, but it also says the drug has a higher potential for abuse than drugs like cocaine, methamphetamines, and Vicodin.
To better understand the legal, medicinal, and cultural ramifications of pot’s Schedule 1 designation, it’s important to understand what drug schedules are, where they came from, and why they’re important.
According to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), drugs, substances, and certain chemicals used to make drugs are classified into five categories (or schedules) based on the drug’s acceptable medical use, as well as its abuse or dependency potential. The current drug schedules date back to 1970, when Congress, recognizing that harsh minimum sentences did little to slow down the nation’s drug culture, repealed most of the mandatory penalties for marijuana-related offenses. As a result, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, which placed drugs into various schedules.
Here’s how the DEA’s schedules are currently broken down:
Schedule I consists of drugs with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” including heroin, LSD, peyote, ecstasy, and (the government says) marijuana.
Schedule II are “also considered dangerous” and carry a high potential for abuse. They include Vicodin, cocaine, methamphetamine, methadone, oxycodone, fentanyl, Dexedrine, Adderall, and Ritalin.
Schedule III drugs possess a “moderate to low potential for physical or psychological dependence.” This group includes products with less than 90 mm of codeine, ketamine, testosterone, and anabolic steroids.
Schedule IV substances — like Xanax, Darvon, Valium, Ativan, Soma, and Ambien — have a low potential for abuse or dependence.
Schedule V includes products that contain low levels of narcotics, such as cough syrup.
As we’ve written previously, President Nixon harbored a strong dislike for the counterculture associated with marijuana and, despite scientific, medical, and legal findings pointing to the benefits and actual effects of the drug, pushed for cannabis to be placed under the very restrictive Schedule 1. Not even a conflicting report by the Shafer Commission — an investigative body appointed by Nixon himself — could convince the president that marijuana should be decriminalized and removed from Schedule 1. Congress approved its placement, and it’s stayed there ever since.
Since then, those convicted of marijuana-related offenses have received needlessly harsh sentences, and since Schedule 1 classification means the federal government deems the drug as basically worthless, physicians and scientists have been blocked from obtaining marijuana for the purpose of studying its medical, scientific, and pharmaceutical usefulness.
During a 1971 “special message” to Congress, Nixon characterized America’s drug problem as “a national emergency,” and he was largely successful in shifting public sentiment toward stricter regulation and stiffer sentences when it came to all kinds of drugs — including marijuana. Hopefully, with an increasing number of states — as well as citizens — now favoring legalization, Congress is now getting the message that pot use isn’t quite the emergency the late president made it out to be.