By Lauren Smith
Updated: 25 September 2023
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has called on the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to reclassify cannabis as a Schedule III drug, a move that would loosen federal restrictions on a substance already legal for recreational use in 23 states.
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Health Department review of cannabis was requested by President Biden
Cannabis, or marijuana, is currently a Schedule I drug under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, regarded as a drug with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”  That classification groups cannabis in the same category as heroin and MDMA (ecstasy) and makes it technically subject to harsher restrictions than cocaine and methamphetamine, both Schedule II.
That is despite the growing acceptance of cannabis as a treatment for conditions ranging from pain and nausea and a reevaluation of its abuse potential. 
As of 2022, 88% of Americans supported the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes, including 59% who supported legalization for both medical and recreational use, according to the Pew Research Center. 
New evidence and a shift in popular attitudes have led 23 states and the District of Colombia to legalize marijuana for recreational use over the last decade. In addition to those states, 15 others permit the use of medical marijuana. 
With federal policy on cannabis increasingly out of step with state laws and public opinion, President Biden last year tasked his Secretary of Health and Attorney General to “expeditiously” review the federal scheduling of cannabis. 
“As part of this process, HHS conducted a scientific and medical evaluation for consideration by DEA,” a spokesperson for the HHS said. 
During this review, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), an agency within the department, considered the eight factors that determine the control status of a substance under federal law, including current scientific knowledge about the drug, its history and current pattern of abuse, and the risk to public health.  It concluded that cannabis doesn't meet the criteria of a Schedule I substance.
Schedule III classification would enable more research and business investment
Following the FDA’s review, the Department of Health and Human Services has recommended that the DEA reclassify cannabis as a Schedule III substance. 
Schedule III substances are those with “moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence” and include ketamine and anabolic steroids.  Schedule III substances can be obtained legally with a prescription. 
“Cannabis should have never been scheduled alongside heroin and placed at the center of our nation’s destructive drug war,” Edward Conklin, executive director of the US Cannabis Council, told Bloomberg News. “Thankfully that era is coming to a close and is being replaced by a modern and scientific approach to regulating this plant.” 
Demoting cannabis to a Schedule III substance under federal law would ease both research into the substance and its sale.
Researchers, who today may spend years obtaining approval from the DEA to study cannabis, won't have to clear so many hurdles. 
Banks, today prohibited from handling money from the sale of certain drugs under tax law, could begin to serve cannabis businesses that currently operate mostly in cash.  Companies selling cannabis could also take advantage of tax deductions available to other firms. 
Major stock exchanges could begin to list businesses in the cannabis trade, and foreign companies could begin to sell cannabis products in the United States. Publicly traded cannabis growers and distributors currently based in Canada, where the substance is fully legal, would likely expand to the U.S. 
George Archos, CEO of one company, Veranos Holdings, told Reuters: "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.” 
Final decision on cannabis scheduling rests with the DEA
However, the Department of Health stopped short of recommending that the DEA deschedule cannabis entirely, as some activists have urged. Descheduling would mean removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and regulating it in the same way tobacco and alcohol are. 
Descheduling would also fix the misalignment between state and federal law, which won’t be resolved by moving cannabis to a lower-risk category, activists said.
“The only way to fully resolve the myriad of issues stemming from the federal conflict with state law is to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and regulate the product in a manner similar to alcohol,” said Aaron Smith, CEO of the National Cannabis Industry Association. 
Additionally, any final decision about the scheduling of a substance lies with the DEA. A spokesperson for the agency confirmed it had received the recommendation from the Department of Health and would now conduct its own review of the scheduling of cannabis. 
Biden campaigned on reforming federal cannabis law
Rescheduling cannabis would fulfill a campaign promise for Biden, who has pledged to relax laws on marijuana use, part of a wider drug policy focused on harm reduction and exploring the therapeutic benefits of stigmatized substances.
Last October, Biden pardoned people convicted of marijuana possession under federal law and urged governors to do the same. “Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit,” Biden said in a statement at the time. 
As most marijuana possession convictions are made at the state level, no one was released from prison as a result of Biden’s pardon, the Marshall Project said.  However, clemency removed prior marijuana possession convictions from the criminal records of thousands, removing obstacles to employment, housing, and education.