Will Marijuana Be Reclassified by the Federal Government?

By Dana Byerly 04/11/14

Removing marijuana's Schedule 1 status would result in federally funded medical research and economic growth.


Supporters of marijuana legalization have seen a tidal wave of change in public opinion sweeping the country recently, with the most significant change coming from the federal government last week.

Speaking to the House Appropriations Committee last Friday, Attorney General Eric Holder expressed a willingness to work with Congress to reclassify marijuana, a reversal from the administration’s previous statements. The announcement comes on the heels of a letter signed by 18 members of Congress calling for marijuana to be reclassified in a way that allows more medical research – another move that indicates a shift.

So far, 20 states from Maine to Hawaii, as well as the District of Columbia, have approved marijuana for medicinal use, while Washington State and Colorado have legalized it for recreational use. Marijuana legalization proponents see these moves as significant, but only the first building blocks in a foundation to effect permanent change.

One of these proponents is Dan Riffle, director of federal policy for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C. His organization focuses on two main issues its members believe will make the biggest impact toward change: educating the public on the harms of marijuana compared to other substances and rethinking how marijuana has been classified as a drug.

Riffle, who served as a prosecuting attorney in southeast Ohio several years ago, jumped ship into the nonprofit waters as a state-level analyst and eventual lobbyist. He said he joined the Marijuana Policy Project because he felt he was wasting his time and taxpayer resources prosecuting people for something he believes is less harmful than alcohol and not a threat to public safety.

“These were mostly people who were growing small numbers of plants in order to make ends meet because there were no jobs in my community, so I felt like taxing and regulating this product, and bringing the market for marijuana aboveground and regulating it was a much smarter approach,” Riffle said.

Although public opinion polls show more people favor legalizing marijuana — 50 to 58 percent support, depending on the poll – it remains classified as a Schedule 1 substance by the Drug Enforcement Agency. This means the DEA evaluates it as having no acceptable medical use, no accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse — assertions challenged by proponents as lawmakers and voters weigh in. Holder’s willingness to work with Congress, though, could lay the foundation for the next level of change.

“Perhaps it’s time for President Obama to hold a ‘beer summit’ with House and Senate leaders to discuss why marijuana is being treated so restrictively compared to more harmful substances, such as alcohol,” Riffle said.

Although he jokes about President Barack Obama’s style of meeting with congressional leaders, Riffle is serious when it comes to members of Congress not reflecting the polls that show more people in support of legalizing marijuana than against.

“Congress is mostly pasty, old white guys. And when you look at the polling, you see that pasty, old white guys are mostly opposed to the legalization of marijuana,” Riffle said. “Young voters, middle-aged voters, independent voters — those are the ones who overwhelmingly support the legalization of marijuana. But Congress is predominantly made up of people who represent a demographic much older and not necessarily in line with normal Americans.”

Educating people on the relative harm of drugs lets people make smarter choices, Riffle said. He believes when people start to recognize marijuana as a less harmful drug than alcohol, they usually come to the conclusion it should be treated that way, which is why support is growing.

“I think the revolution in drug policy, science and the way we think about drugs really focuses on the relative harms of marijuana compared to alcohol. I’m perfectly willing to say people should not use marijuana. Marijuana is a drug. I’m not pro-marijuana or whatever,” Riffle said. “I would just much rather, if someone is going to use a drug, use marijuana than alcohol or heroin or other substances that can kill them.”

As legalization proponents like Riffle ride the wave of support, they also debate the best way to accomplish policy change. Most believe congressional legislation is the best route to explore, coupled with petitioning the DEA to downgrade marijuana’s Schedule 1 status. However, the DEA, which did not respond to requests to comment for this story, has denied several petitions to reschedule the drug. Final options include the Justice Department acting unilaterally to make the change or a presidential directive demanding the DEA reclassify marijuana.

Regardless of the method, if marijuana does get removed from Schedule 1 status or descheduled completely, the door that’s been closed to research and development would suddenly open wide. As Riffle puts it, scientists would no longer be “handcuffed or told to do certain types of research.” That’s because the federal budget requires that the Department of Health and Human Services not spend money to promote or fund research that would lead to legalization of any Schedule 1 drug, including marijuana. If marijuana were rescheduled or descheduled, scientists could research aspects other than its dangers.

Similarly, funding provisions for the Office of National Drug Control Policy prohibit the drug czar from supporting efforts to legalize a Schedule 1 drug, although pending legislation could change that.

Equating the effort to decriminalize marijuana with the fight against Prohibition in the 1930s, Riffle supports the belief that marijuana is not as harmful as alcohol, which the DEA classifies under Schedule 2.

“When you look back at alcohol prohibition, and how prohibition ended, it was a number of states repealing their laws against alcohol production or distribution and sort of forcing the government to enforce prohibition, which they didn’t have the resources to do,” he said. “And that’s virtually what we’re seeing right now in Washington and Colorado.”

While rescheduling marijuana would allow advancements in research and development, descheduling would kick down the door and encourage other states to approve and regulate marijuana for medicinal and other uses.

“Government is behind the people on this issue,” Riffle said. “I think a lot of the members of Congress for the last 30 to 40 years have seen this war-on-drugs, tough-on-crime mindset as a way to increase their chances of getting elected. The change in polling — that a majority of Americans support taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol — is still relatively new, so that hasn’t set it in yet.”

With as much effort as Riffle and the Marijuana Policy Project put into removing marijuana from Schedule 1 status, they are not alone.

Working with the American Civil Liberties Union National Capital Chapter and the Drug Policy Alliance, Riffle’s group recently helped decriminalize marijuana in Washington, D.C. Last year, it worked with the Illinois Nurses’ Association and the AIDS Foundation to win passage of a medical marijuana law in Illinois. While working in Colorado to legalize marijuana, Riffle’s group partnered with more than 300 physicians who signed a letter of support for the initiative to regulate marijuana like alcohol. A countless number of other physicians have signed statements calling for marijuana to be rescheduled. Eighteen members of Congress recently signed a letter to the DEA calling for the reclassification of marijuana.

Since marijuana’s Schedule 1 classification discourages research – and it’s expensive to research any Schedule 1 drug – major medical organizations such as the National Epilepsy Foundation, American Public Health Association and American College of Physicians have issued statements expressing the need to change marijuana’s classification for research purposes.

The American Medical Association’s policy position reflects opposition to legalizing marijuana, but a provision encourages the federal government to reconsider the Schedule 1 classification with the goal of increasing research. And much non-federally funded research has shown cannabis effective in treating the effects of many diseases, including epilepsy, AIDS and glaucoma.

Reclassification wouldn’t just affect research, though. Businesses that grow and sell marijuana in places where it’s legal aren’t allowed to claim ordinary business expenses and tax deductions with the IRS because they sell a Schedule 1 drug, which is illegal under federal law. Reclassifying marijuana “would solve that tax issue, which is pretty significant for businesses, especially for medical marijuana and marijuana adult use businesses in Washington and Colorado that are trying to create jobs for people,” Riffle said.

The boost in jobs, as well as increased sales tax revenues, could be an important election issue in 2016, although not so much in 2014, according to Riffle, because voters who turn out for midterm elections aren’t usually the ones who support the issue. Only two states, Alaska and Oregon, will have initiatives to tax and regulate marijuana on 2014 ballots.

“In 2016, we’re going to have a lot more elections and sort of swing areas where people are going to have to play for those young voters and independent voters who support this issue,” Riffle said. “We are sort of on a curve where the issue is only going to become more and more significant over time.”

If the momentum continues into 2016, Riffle said, he expects to see legalization initiatives on ballots in many swing states such as Nevada, California, Arizona, Maine and Massachusetts.

“I think as we see more states repeal their laws against marijuana and start regulating marijuana like alcohol, the more pressure it puts on the federal government to do something about that,” he said. “Public opinion works in our favor, but Congress doesn’t always respond to public opinion at large.”

Dana Byerly is on staff at The Fix, and has written for the San Antonio Express-News and The Oklahoman among others.

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Dana Byerly is on staff at The Fix, and has written for the San Antonio Express-News and The Oklahoman among others. She last wrote about federal classification of marijuana. She can be found on Twitter.