Last week, President Joe Biden announced that he would pardon all Americans federally convicted of simple possession of marijuana. The announcement was a welcome, though limited, shift in the U.S. government's seemingly unending war on drugs. Biden additionally called on governors to follow suit in their respective states and grant clemency to the vast majority of offenders convicted under state laws. He also encouraged Attorney General Merrick Garland and Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Xavier Becerra to review marijuana's classification under federal law.
But that shift may be easier said than done thanks to the age-old problem of federal bureaucracy.
Currently, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance, indicating "a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision." In his announcement last week, the president noted that this puts it in the same category as heroin and a more restrictive category than fentanyl.
In 2015, the last time the government assessed marijuana's classification, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and HHS recommended keeping it at Schedule I. The assessment included, among other factors, "the scientific literature on whether marijuana has a currently accepted medical use"—a tall order since Schedule I status makes it much more difficult to study in the first place.
The Washington Post reported today that "such an evaluation—the first initiated by a U.S. president—is made all the more difficult due to tight restrictions on research into marijuana." Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a research institute within the National Institutes of Health, told the paper, "It's something that we constantly communicate: We really need to figure out a way of doing research with these substances."
In other words, as Scott Lincicome of the Cato Institute tweeted, the government "can't research whether marijuana should remain a 'Schedule I' substance bc of govt restrictions on… researching Schedule I substances."
So the govt can't research whether marijuana should remain a "Schedule I" substance bc of govt restrictions on… researching Schedule I substances. Makes sense. https://t.co/d9nl4sqVNf pic.twitter.com/ySdciQOhn5
— Scott Lincicome (@scottlincicome) October 10, 2022
Even just changing the classification of weed to Schedule II, the same as fentanyl, would at least open it up to medical research, a change advocated by such groups as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Physicians. Further, under Schedule II, it could even be prescribed by doctors similar to the way painkillers are now.
In an unfortunate catch-22, marijuana's current classification status will likely prolong the process of reclassifying it.