The Case for Descheduling Drugs: From Cannabis to Heroin

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This entry has been published on November 22, 2022 and may be out of date.

Recently, President Biden asked the Secretary of Health and Human Services to “initiate the administrative process to review expeditiously how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.” The announcement was a welcomed change by many federal cannabis activists, who are calling for the descheduling of cannabis through this review. In order to truly understand why we must deschedule marijuana, it’s important to understand the Controlled Substances Act, how scheduling works, what are the benefits and limitations, and what are the alternatives. 

The “Controlled Substances Act” (CSA) was signed into law by President Nixon in 1970 and created a scheduling system that would rank drugs based on their accepted medicinal use, abuse potential, and severity of potential physical and psychological harm associated with abuse, with Schedule I substances having the most restrictions and Schedule 5 substances having the least restrictions.  The scheduling criteria is defined by 21 USC 812: Schedules of controlled substances. Except in the case of a Congressional amendment, only the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) have the power to add, reschedule, or remove any and all substances in the scheduling system. The underlying idea was that many of the drugs listed under the CSA were used in the medical profession and would have lesser restrictions, whereas law enforcement officials would be the experts in illicit drugs available on the streets and could determine how dangerous these illicit substances truly are. 

For example, marijuana, heroin, LSD, and MDMA are all Schedule I substances, which means the government has deemed these substances as (1) having no medicinal value, (2) there is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug under medical supervision, and (3) have a high potential for abuse. The government has used the Schedule 1 designation of these substances to justify aggressive police tactics, regular human rights abuses, and the creation of the largest prison system in the world; yet, there has been clear and mounting evidence supporting the medical potential for all of these substances. MDMA-assisted treatment, for example, is in the final round of trials to receive FDA approval for the treatment of PTSD. Cannabis has been shown to be effective for a whole host of medical conditions, and Heroin Assisted Treatment (HAT) has been shown to be very effective for treating Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) in countries like Canada and Sweden. So long as these substances remain scheduled, everyday Americans will be denied access to the medicine that serves them or their patients best, will be arrested and branded as criminals, will be denied access to risk reduction and prevention support, and will suffer unnecessary harm from widespread misinformation about these substances. 

Regardless of intention, the scheduling system regularly gets in the way of best medical practices, weaponizes police against the people, and perpetuates the myth that certain drugs are just too dangerous to even consider researching. While different drugs have different risk profiles, that does not mean that certain drugs are inherently more harmful and dangerous than others. This is because risk reduction practices, resources, and support structures have been scientifically shown to work. Understanding the drugs people are using, their risks, their benefits, and what people can do to minimize the risks while maximizing the benefits is an effective public health strategy from cannabis to heroin. The criminalization and carceral systems have caused more harm to Americans than any drug in the scheduling system to date.