What Schedule 1 Means for Cannabis

The conversation about cannabis in political circles has recently been focused around terms like “de-schedule” or “reschedule.” “Schedule 1” or “Schedule 2.” What do these terms mean, though? What, exactly, are the ramifications of the current federal legal status of cannabis?



In 1970 President Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act regulating drugs in the U.S., partially to comply with international treaties. It authorized the Department of Health and Human Services and the Food and Drug Administration to regulate drugs, tasked the Drug Enforcement Agency to enforce these regulations, and categorized drugs into five tiers, or Schedules.

Schedule 1 is reserved for substances that are so-called “dangerous, with no medical application, and with high potential for abuse.” This includes heroin, MDMA, LSD, and mescaline. Prescriptions cannot be written for anything in Schedule 1.

Schedule 2 is for substances with a high potential for abuse, that may result in high physical dependence, but that have currently accepted medical uses. This includes opium, morphine, oxycodone, methamphetamine, codeine, and cocaine. Prescriptions are required for all drugs in this list.

Schedule 3 substances have a lower potential for abuse than the previous two, have accepted medical uses, and have a low to moderate risk of addiction in cases of abuse. Prescriptions are required for Schedule 3 substances including intermediate-acting barbiturates, anabolic steroids, and ketamine.

Schedule 4 is reserved for substances that have lower potential for abuse than the previous three, that have low risk of dependence, and that have accepted medical uses. Prescriptions are required for these drugs which include benzodiazepines (like Xanax or Klonopin), benzodiazepine-like drugs (like Ambien or Lunesta), and long-acting barbiturates.

Schedule 5 substances have the lowest potential for abuse, low risk of dependence, and accepted medical uses. Prescription medications like cough suppressants containing codeine, and anti-convulsants like Lyrica are in this classification.


Consequences for Cannabis

Cannabis, and the individual cannabinoid THC are currently listed in Schedule 1. Many states have decriminalized possession of cannabis in small amounts (making simple possession the equivalent of a traffic ticket), but it is a class 1 federal felony to conduct research not pre-approved by the DEA. With cannabis in particular, all DEA-approved studies must requisition the plant from the National Institute for Drug Abuse facility at the University of Mississippi – a distinction that NIDA itself does not agree with.

Further, doctors cannot prescribe Schedule 1 substances which is why medical cannabis programs across the country – other than Louisiana’s mostly ineffective system – legally require only a doctor’s recommendation or verification of illness. State legal cannabis businesses also face additional tax burdens, and the lack of interstate commerce means that each state market is isolated with separate regulations and redundant business processes. 


The Future of Legal Cannabis

Given these legal complications, why is the cannabis industry booming in states across the country?

Over 50% of the country approves of the legalization of cannabis for personal adult use and that number climbs into the high 70s in swing states for medical cannabis legalization. From a voter standpoint it certainly seems like cannabis is here to stay.

Widespread popular approval is one of the reasons. Over half of the U.S. population lives in a state where cannabis is legal in some fashion. Over 50% of the country approves of the legalization of cannabis for personal adult use and that number climbs into the high 70s in swing states for medical cannabis legalization. From a voter standpoint it certainly seems like cannabis is here to stay.

Several signs from the federal government have also given cannabis entrepreneurs and investors some hope. The Justice Department’s Cole Memo gave states and businesses an outline to follow for reduced risk of prosecution, and though this action of the Executive Branch might seem tenuous in the 8th year of a President, each of the remaining candidates has stated that they would, at least, respect the rights of states to set their own cannabis policy. Congress has taken action as well, attaching amendments to the last several spending bills restricting the ability of the DOJ and the DEA to interfere with state-legal cannabis programs – a restriction that has been upheld in federal appeals court.

Additionally, the CARERS Act currently has 18 co-sponsors in the Senate (including several Republicans such as Lindsay Graham), and would reclassify cannabis to Schedule 2. It would also separate CBD from the definition of “marijuana”, it includes several provisions to open up cannabis to banking, it specifically creates more avenues for cannabis research, and it allows Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend cannabis to patients.

Should the bill become law it would essentially legalize medical cannabis at the federal level which is an overdue change. The medical efficacy of cannabis is proven in states across the country every single day (clinically, in the case of the recent G.W. Pharmaceuticals CBD study) as patients are able to drop prescription medications with debilitating side-effects and regain control of their lives.  

As studies of cannabis prove its medical efficacy it seems inevitable that it eventually meets the standard of “accepted medical use” and is rescheduled. In the meantime, though, there are many hurdles that cannabis businesses face, and that patients must deal with, while the plant remains in Schedule 1.