DEA Moving Toward Recategorizing Marijuana As A Lower-Schedule Drug: Reports

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is moving toward removing marijuana from its list of Schedule I drugs, finally heeding calls from activists to stop conflating the widely used substance with the dangers of drugs that actually kill people, The Associated Press and The New York Times reported Tuesday.

A proposal from the DEA would need to be reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget. The drug agency deferred questions to the Department of Justice, which oversees the DEA. The DOJ declined to comment.

Despite being legalized for recreational use in 24 U.S. states, marijuana has long been categorized as a Schedule I drug by the DEA, with the agency saying it has “a high potential for abuse and the potential to create severe psychological and/or physical dependence.”

But cannabis use disorder is rare, and no one has ever died from a marijuana overdose. Meanwhile, overdoses on heroin, a synthetic opioid made from morphine on the Schedule I list, claim more than 14,000 Americans’ lives every year.

The Schedule II drug list, which is supposed to contain less dangerous substances, includes cocaine, methamphetamine and the mass killer drugs fentanyl and oxycodone.

And although the Schedule I drug list is supposed to list substances with “no currently accepted medical use,” 38 states currently allow the medical use of marijuana to treat the symptoms of cancer, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis and a host of other syndromes and diseases.

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during a roundtable conversation about marijuana reform in March.
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during a roundtable conversation about marijuana reform in March. KENT NISHIMURA via Getty Images

The DEA’s reported plans come on the heels of Vice President Kamala Harris calling on the federal government to move “as quickly as possible” on marijuana’s classification, saying that “nobody should have to go to jail for smoking weed.”

“This issue is stark when one considers the fact that on the schedule currently, marijuana is considered as dangerous as heroin ― as dangerous as heroin ― and more dangerous than fentanyl, which is absurd, not to mention patently unfair,” Harris said at a White House meeting last month with people who had received pardons from President Joe Biden for marijuana-related offenses.

In October 2022, Biden, who campaigned on decriminalizing the use of cannabis, directed the Department of Health and Human Services and DOJ to review how weed is scheduled under federal law. The following year, HHS recommended that the DEA move cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule III, the category for drugs that have an accepted medical use and a lower potential for abuse than Schedule I or II substances.

But some legislators say reclassifying would not do enough. A group of Democratic lawmakers have repeatedly urged the DEA to remove weed from the federal government’s list of restricted drugs rather than move it to a different category. The HHS review “made clear that cannabis does not meet the medical or scientific requirements for Schedule I,” the lawmakers wrote in a January letter.

While moving cannabis to Schedule III “would mark a significant step forward, it would not resolve the worst harms of the current system,” they wrote, referring to criminal penalties associated with cannabis use, which disproportionately harm Black and brown people.