The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency recently announced plans to allow more scientists to grow cannabis for research. Historically, cannabis was grown only on the campus of the University of Mississippi, and scientists complained about the quality and variety of available material.
Most commentary on the DEA’s announcement has praised it as a step toward increased cannabis research and potentially toward national cannabis legalization. Though the program could have some positive effects, its overall impact will be negative. The program perpetuates the misconception that cannabis is a harmful illicit substance, and it may further entrench corporate interests in the cannabis industry at the expense of scientific progress and diversity in cannabis research.
The conversation we should be having is about rescheduling cannabis. A significant obstacle to research is the stigma imparted to cannabis by its categorization as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. This category includes drugs such as heroin and the psychedelics psilocybin and MDMA (“ecstasy”). The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration claims Schedule 1 drugs have no currently accepted medical uses and a “high potential for abuse and dependence.”
Moving cannabis to Schedule 2 would put it in the same category as cocaine and fentanyl, which have recognized medical uses despite their tendency to produce physical and psychological dependence. However, because cannabis has fewer and far less severe side effects, it would more appropriately be categorized in Schedule 3 or 4, which contain drugs such as ketamine and Ambien, respectively. But any change in scheduling would make cannabis easier to grow, study and prescribe.
In contrast, if the DEA cannabis program moves forward, and cannabis remains in Schedule 1, universities and other organizations will be deterred from studying it. Though technically they would not break federal law by starting DEA-sanctioned cannabis grow operations, the administration will continue to perceive cannabis as an illicit substance. Less funding will be available for research, and fewer scientists will be willing to study it. In short, rescheduling will de-stigmatize cannabis and make it a legitimate subject of study. The DEA’s research program will not.
Rescheduling is also appropriate because the position that cannabis has no currently accepted medical use, the main rationale for keeping it in Schedule 1, is no longer tenable. In over half the states, cannabis…