DEA to reclassify marijuana: How this revolutionary shift impacts you

By Lisa Marie Basile | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published May 8, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • The US DEA will move to reclassify marijuana to a Schedule III drug, from its current classification of Schedule I. If approved, this shift will validate the drug’s medicinal uses and  acknowledge its lower potential for abuse. 

  • Marijuana is currently in the same class as heroin and ecstasy; while some people believe marijuana is a gateway drug, others tout its potential in medicine.

  • Experts believe that the reclassification would mean better access for more patients, better research and education around marijuana, and a shift in attitudes and stigma about its use. 

The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) plans to reclassify marijuana to a Schedule III controlled substance from Schedule I.[] This shift would not only recognize the drug’s medicinal uses, but also acknowledge that it has less potential for abuse.

The move would be historic, but the proposal still needs to be greenlighted by the White House Office of Management and Budget. 

The only remaining regulatory hurdle

The DEA’s proposal follows a recommendation from the Health and Human Services Department—as well as a 2022 suggestion by President Biden—that the drug’s classification be reviewed.[] 

The Associated Press (AP) reports that the DEA’s move—which the outlet learned about via five anonymous sources—would be “the last significant regulatory hurdle before the agency’s biggest policy change in more than 50 years can take effect.”[]

According to the DEA, Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”[] Marijuana, therefore, is in the same category as heroin or ecstasy. 

Schedule III drugs, substances, or chemicals, however, are defined as “drugs with a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence.”[] Other drugs in this category include Tylenol with codeine and anabolic steroids. The DEA has stated that no deaths from overdose of marijuana have been reported.[]

What it means

Schedule III substances are still subject to rules regarding medical use and criminal prosecution of trafficking.[]

“Marijuana is a complex mixture of components, many of which we refer to as ‘cannabinoids,’” says Rochelle Hines, PhD and Dustin Hines, PhD, both neuroscientists and psychology professors at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Cannabinoids are also made by our body and regulate important processes such as appetite, pain perception, movement, and memory,” they share with MDLinx.

The Drs. Hines note that cannabinoids, from both plants and the body, are recognized by receptors in the body that mediate how our systems respond. “The cannabinoid delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol activates these receptors and is responsible for the effects of medical marijuana in increasing appetite and reducing nausea,” they explain.

Marijuana use has long been a hot topic of debate. Some people (including Jack Riley, a former deputy administrator of the DEA) believe that marijuana is a potential “gateway” to other, stronger drugs, the AP reports.[]

On the other hand, some experts believe that marijuana deserves to have a place in society—and in medicine. Drs. Hines note that states have been attempting to legalize the medical use of marijuana for almost three decades—since 1996. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 38 states, 3 territories, and Washington, DC, all allow the medical use of cannabis products, while 24 states, 2 territories, and Washington, DC, have taken steps to regulate cannabis for adult recreational use.[]

Potential impacts for providers and patients

The reclassification could mean more patients having better access to a viable treatment option, as cannabis has been shown to treat several health conditions, including anxiety, appetite issues, and nausea.

“Another cannabinoid, cannabidiol, has an inverse effect on the receptors, and is used as an anti-seizure treatment,” the Drs. Hines add.

David Rabin MD, PhD, founder and Chief Medical Officer of Apollo Neuroscience, stresses that cannabis can also help with conditions that are more challenging to treat with standard medications due to side effects or lack of treatment response. These, he says, include PTSD and chronic pain. 

“Medical cannabis is a very useful and safe alternative when used properly,” Dr. Rabin tells MDLinx. “When formulated properly at the right doses, it can provide great relief with little to no side effects.”

He cites research he contributed to, published in Harm Reduction Journal in 2023,[] that found cannabis could provide a safer alternative for patients with chronic pain who are dependent on opioids. 

"[Cannabis] can revolutionize the way we treat massive public health problems."

David Rabin MD, PhD

Improving access and other benefits

Gary Long, CEO of Botanical Sciences, a physician-owned medical cannabis dispensary, says that a reclassification of marijuana could dramatically improve its accessibility to patients. “This would mean easier access, possibly lower costs, and the legitimization of their treatment in the eyes of the wider medical community,” Long says.

“For clinicians, [it] could also stimulate more extensive research and better education around the usage and benefits of cannabis, thereby enhancing treatment efficacy and safety,” he continues. On that note, the Drs. Hines agree that the drug’s reclassification could help pave the way to rescheduling other substances with medicinal uses—such as psychedelic drugs—as therapeutics.

Marijuana’s reclassification could also have a positive impact on the stigma associated with the drug.

Shari B. Kaplan, LCSW, a plant medicine formulator at Cannectd Wellness, tells MDLinx the reclassification could change the way people perceive cannabis.

“For patients—particularly those who may have been hesitant about cannabis due to its legal status or societal stigma—this change could provide a new avenue for treatment that is potentially less harmful and more effective than traditional options,” she says. “[It could] herald a more progressive approach to cannabis, aligning legal attitudes more closely with emerging scientific research and clinical practice.”

What this means for you

The AP reports that the US DEA plans to reclassify marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III, acknowledging its medical benefits and lower abuse potential, pending White House approval. The change could improve patient access to treatment, particularly for conditions like anxiety, nausea, and chronic pain (potentially offering a safer alternative to opioids). Reclassification may also reduce stigma, encourage research, and align legal attitudes with evolving scientific understanding.

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