Updated Aug 30, 2023 - Health

U.S. health officials push marijuana for lower-risk category

A medical marijuana nursery in Apopka, Florida.

A medical marijuana nursery in Apopka, Florida. Photo: Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Officials with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently recommended the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to move marijuana to a lower-risk category under the Controlled Substances Act.

Why it matters: Easing federal restrictions on marijuana could eliminate some of the hurdles facing the country's growing cannabis industry, such as access to banking services, and would potentially allow it to expand, according to Bloomberg, which first reported on HHS's recommendation.

  • Though cannabis and its derivatives have been in some form legalized in all but four states, they remain illegal on the federal level despite recent legalization efforts in Congress.
  • The recommendation resulted from President Biden's 2022 directive to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra to review marijuana's scheduling as part of a wider marijuana reform effort.

The HHS's proposal was made by Assistant Secretary for Health Rachel Levine in a letter dated Aug. 29 to Drug Enforcement Agency administrator Anne Milgram, Bloomberg reported.

  • The HHS said in the letter that the results of a Food and Drug Administration review of marijuana's classification indicated that it should be reclassified from a Schedule I drug — the classification meant for the most dangerous substances — to a Schedule III drug.

What they're saying: The DEA, which has final authority on changing the categorization of a substance, confirmed Wednesday it received the HHS' findings and recommendations and said it would begin to review them.

  • The HHS confirmed that it gave the DEA its recommendations on Aug. 29 but did not explain what its guidance was.
  • "This is a step in the right direction but it is not sufficient," Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who has worked to end the federal prohibition of cannabis, said in a statement on Wednesday. "I hope it is followed by more significant reforms. This is long overdue."
  • Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement that if HHS' proposal is implemented, it would allow marijuana companies to deduct their business expenses on their taxes while eliminating restrictions on cannabis research.
  • "If HHS's recommendation is ultimately implemented, it will be a historic step for a nation whose cannabis policies have been out of touch with reality," Wyden said.

How it works: Marijuana has been categorized as a Schedule I drug since the Controlled Substances Act was enacted in 1970, meaning it's considered to have no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse, according to the DEA.

  • Other Schedule I drugs include heroin, LSD, PCP, ecstasy and peyote. Crack and powdered cocaine are Schedule II substances.
  • If marijuana is moved to a Schedule III substance, it will be considered to have some medical uses and a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence.
  • Other Schedule III substances include certain opioid-based pain medications, anabolic steroids and testosterone.

The big picture: As part of an effort to reform federal marijuana regulations, Biden last year pardoned all prior federal offenses of simple marijuana possession and will call on governors to pardon simple state possession offenses.

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Editor's note: This story has been updated with comments from Sen. Ron Wyden.

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