If I told you the Food and Drug Administration was going to reschedule marijuana, you might think that 4:20 had been postponed to 4:45. However, bureaucrats use the English language in ways that humans don’t. To the wise and wonderful at the FDA, “rescheduling” means altering the restrictions on a controlled substance. In other words, the FDA is actually thinking about making marijuana less difficult to obtain.
Under the U.S. law for controlled substances, there was five distinct categories, called “schedules” in FDA-speak. At one end, you have Schedule I drugs, those that have a very high potential for abuse and for which there is no “current accepted medical use.” On this list are such things as heroin, LSD, mescaline, peyote, psilocybin, and of course, everyone’s favorite 4-methyl-N-methylcathinone—1248. These are just bad news in different forms. Also on this list, however, is marijuana. It’s like on “Sesame Street” — one of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong.
Drugs on Schedules II-V aren’t harmless by any stretch of the imagination, but under proper medical supervision, they can do some good. Codeine, for instance, is on Schedule II because it is easily abused but has painkilling value, and cocaine is Schedule II as well because it can be used as a topical anesthetic. That’s right, the FDA says pot has less social value than coke. Anabolic steroids are on Schedule III because they are less likely to be abused than drugs on Schedules I-II. Phenobarbital is on Schedule IV because it has relatively low potential for abuse (seriously, that’s what the FDA says — less likely to be abused than pot). Cough suppressants with small amounts of codeine are on Schedule V, less likely to be abused than stuff on other schedules.
Obviously, someone at the FDA is on drugs. Marijuana is simply on the wrong list — that doesn’t mean it should be in children’s breakfast cereal, but to categorize it as worse than morphine and on a par with acid is a priori stupid. Rescheduling here is completely in order.
FDA Press Officer Jeff Ventura has explained how this works, “FDA conducts for [the Department of] Health and Human Services a scientific and medical analysis of the drug under consideration, which is currently ongoing. HHS then recommends to DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency] that the drug be placed in a given schedule. DEA considers HHS’ analysis, conducts its own assessment, and makes a final scheduling proposal in the form of a proposed rule.”
There are eight factors in the Controlled Substances Act that the FDA looks at when deciding on which schedule a drug belongs:
“1. Its actual or relative potential for abuse
2. Scientific evidence of its pharmacological effect, if known
3. The state of current scientific knowledge regarding the drug or other substance
4. Its history and current pattern of abuse
5. The scope, duration, and significance of abuse
6. What, if any, risk there is to the public health
7. Its psychic or physiological dependence liability
8. Whether the substance is an immediate precursor of a substance already controlled under this subchapter.”
Because there are two citizens’ petitions requesting a DEA review, the FDA must carry out a new assessment. Marijuana may wind up on Schedule II with morphine.
The interesting thing here is that Congress doesn’t have to act. When the Controlled Substances Act was passed, legislators figured out that they couldn’t keep up with pharmacology. So the agencies were given the authority to regulate drugs, and that’s why new drugs have to go through an FDA approval process before patients can get them.
Any rescheduling would not change the federal law that makes recreational use of marijuana illegal, but it would let cancer patients, for instance, get hold of marijuana to treat their chemotherapy-induced nausea all across the country.