More than half the states in the nation and Washington DC have legalized medical marijuana. While people managing pain or living with extremely painful forms of cancer in those states are grateful, some researchers and addiction treatment providers are arguing that just changing the drug’s status at a state level doesn’t go far enough. Here’s why we have to move marijuana out of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) Schedule I category and how that move could improve millions of Americans’ lives.
The DEA’s tiered drug schedule originated in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 and created guidelines by which the agency could monitor the production, distribution and possession of certain drugs based on the drug’s potential for abuse and known medical uses. As a Schedule I substance, marijuana is in the same category as heroin, ecstasy and LSD, as a drug with high potential for abuse and dependency with no known medical uses.
At this point, marijuana’s Schedule I classification is outdated to say the least. There are a host of known medical uses for marijuana, ranging from pain management to a treatment for various forms of epilepsy. Even if you think people shouldn’t use marijuana recreationally, you can’t deny that medical research has found many uses for marijuana that bring real relief to many thousands, if not millions of people, including children with tragic forms of epilepsy and those with terminal cancer who want the best quality of life possible in their final days. Going off of the DEA’s own definition of a Schedule I substance, as one without known medical uses, marijuana should be reclassified.
But there’s another pressing public health issue that should merit marijuana’s immediate reclassification: the opioid epidemic. A pair of researchers at the University of Georgia scoured prescription data for states that legalized medical marijuana use and compared that to the number of opioid prescriptions written before and after legalization. Their findings were astonishing: in states where medical marijuana was available, doctors prescribed 1,826 fewer doses of prescription painkillers, preventing thousands of people from the potential to abuse, become addicted to, or overdose on prescription opioids.
Marijuana is not a magical cure for all sicknesses. But its medical uses and important relationship to opioid-prescribing behaviors can’t be ignored. As our country takes a new direction under president-elect Donald Trump, we should not be afraid of changing our drug schedule to reflect the most recent medical research and providing greater opportunities for choice for those seeking to manage very real medical problems.
It is time for the DEA to take marijuana out of its Schedule I classification. Doing so would send a powerful message to Americans that the DEA is committed to cutting-edge medical research and ending the nation’s opioid crisis. In the meantime, people who live in states where marijuana possession and use is illegal across the board will continue to self-medicate with the drug at the risk of arrest, fines and incarceration.