How American Drug Scheduling and the Controlled Substances Act Really Works

Recent announcements from a number of Democratic presidential candidates committed to changing cannabis’s status within the drug scheduling system has left many observers incredibly hopeful for 2020.  While tremendous progress has been made at the state level, cannabis’s current legal status as a Schedule 1 drug federally is still by far the biggest obstacle, both for legalization advocates and the industry at large.

When it comes to drug policy, there’s still quite a bit of confusion, and the reality is that most people simply don’t know what scheduling is and how the system actually works.

The Controlled Substances Act

In order to fully understand how drug scheduling works, it’s important to understand some of the history behind it, including the rationale for why the system was created in the first place.

Following his announcement of a new “war on drugs” in 1971, Richard Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1973.  The DEA is responsible for curbing narcotic use and the illicit drug trade, and enforcing the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), also signed into law by Nixon in 1970.

The creation of these entities was set against the backdrop of growing public concern regarding what many perceived as rising drug use in the country.  This included cannabis and psychedelic drugs in the 1960’s counterculture, as well as increasing heroin use by US soldiers fighting in Vietnam.

The CSA is the fundamental piece of legislation detailing and outlining various drug categories, with substances placed into the system based on a number of factors.

How The Scheduling System Works

The Controlled Substances Act effectively creates five different classifications of drugs.  A substance is placed on the list based on its potential for abuse and what (if any) medical potential it may exhibit.

Schedule 1

A Schedule 1 substance is classified as one having both a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical value.  They’re also characterized by a lack of accepted safety.

A few of the substances currently classified as Schedule I include:

  • Cannabis
  • Heroin
  • LSD
  • MDMA
  • Psilocybin

Schedule II

Schedule II substances are similar to Schedule I in that they have a high potential for abuse, but differ in their currently accepted medical value.  They’re also characterized by their potential for creating a physical or psychological dependency, and include:

  • Cocaine
  • Amphetamines
  • Codeine
  • Fentanyl
  • Morphine
  • Oxycodone

Schedule III

A Schedule III substance is one with less potential for abuse than a Schedule I or II substance, and with currently accepted medical use.  It’s also characterized by the potential for “moderate to low” physical and psychological dependency, and includes:

  • Anabolic steroids
  • Testosterone
  • Benzphetamine
  • Marinol

Schedule IV

Schedule IV substances are those with low potential for abuse (relative to Schedule III), currently accepted medical use, and the potential for only limited physical dependency, and includes:

  • Benzodiazepines
  • Tramadol
  • Carisoprodol

Schedule V

Schedule V substances all have the lowest potential for abuse, currently accepted medical use, and the lowest potential for physical and psychological dependency.  They include:

  • Motofen
  • Lyrica
  • Pyrovalerone

While a substance’s classification has an impact on the laws and restrictions surrounding it, it’s important to point out that a specific drug’s position in the system doesn’t necessarily determine how dangerous the government considers it.  For example, Heroin, LSD and cannabis are all in the same category, however, they’re not viewed as being equally dangerous – they both simply are considered to have a high abuse potential and no medical value.

How To Reschedule A Drug

Rescheduling or removing a substance already in the system is a complicated process, with a number of different factors involved.  Only a few entities actually have the power to make the change.

Bernie Sanders Unveils Plan to Legalize Cannabis
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The first is at the executive level.  The President of the United States has the authority to remove or change the status of a drug.  This was seen in the recent announcement by Bernie Sanders, pledging that he would sign an executive order instructing the Attorney General to declassify cannabis, removing it from the system completely.

Another entity with the power to affect change is the Department of Health and Human Services, with the Health and Human Services Secretary also having the authority to reschedule.

The second way a change can be made is at the legislative level.  Congress can create and pass legislation that makes changes to the Controlled Substances Act.  Such an action can either move a substance from one category to another, or remove it from the CSA altogether.

The Current Legal Status Of Cannabis

While cannabis has a long history of being strictly regulated in America, it has officially been a Schedule I drug since the very inception of the Controlled Substances Act.

And the fact that cannabis has been placed at this upper tier has a profound impact on its regulation, with both Schedule I and Schedule II substances being heavily controlled, criminalized and restricted.  

As a Schedule 1 narcotic, cannabis is federally illegal, and will very likely remain that way for as long as it’s in that position.  While Schedule II drugs don’t fare much better, the fact that they are considered to have some medical value at the very least creates avenues for research and distribution with prescription.

All of this is in spite of the fact that, while the extent of its efficacy may be debated, cannabis does have medical value, and this is something that the majority of experts don’t dispute.  

It’s also in spite of the fact that, at the state level, the majority of the country has some kind of medical marijuana program in place.

The current federal status of cannabis has also created a number of problems for industries in places like Colorado and Washington that have fully legalized.  This includes restrictions on banking, which has forced companies that handle pot to conduct many of their transactions in cash. It also places restrictions on tax deductions for cannabis companies, causing their tax burden to soar as high as 90 percent in some cases.

The fact of the matter is that the Controlled Substances Act places overwhelming restrictions on cannabis that are difficult to ignore, and its rescheduling or removal would by far represent the biggest win in the battle for legalization.