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Exploring the Implications: HHS’s Plan to Move Cannabis to Schedule III

cannabis illegal

The Department of Health and Human Services was tasked to evaluate whether cannabis should be rescheduled under the Controlled Substances Act. President Joe Biden asked for an HHS recommendation to be provided to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which will have the final say on whether cannabis moves from Schedule I to Schedule III.

It is often discussed that, ideally, cannabis could be unscheduled and treated like alcohol. However, because of the potential for prescription drug interaction and psychoactive effects of cannabis, that is unlikely to happen. Unlike alcohol, there are not enough clinical studies about the long-term use of cannabis, which is why marijuana restrictions remain.

Opinions are divided about the move to reclassify marijuana with other Schedule III drugs. There are some positive things that could happen, however, which would benefit the lives of patients if cannabis is moved out of the most restricted Schedule I classification.

The Difference Between Schedule I and Schedule III Drugs

Any controlled substance that is defined as a Schedule I drug is determined to have the highest potential to harm human health. Schedule I drugs have the highest potential for abuse, addiction, overdose, and impairment that could cause injury or self-harm.

Right now, cannabis lives in a rough regulatory neighborhood with some unsavory neighbors, including peyote, LSD, and heroin. Drugs like cocaine, opioids, morphine are Schedule II drugs. When you consider the overdose and addiction potential of Schedule II drugs, cannabis doesn’t fit in with that group either.

Schedule III drugs include low-dose narcotic and non-narcotic drugs, anti-anxiety medications, tranquilizers and sedatives, stimulants, anabolic steroids, and non-narcotic pain medications like acetaminophen with codeine. Health and Human Services (HHS) has recommended placing cannabis in this regulatory neighborhood instead, which many people agree makes more sense.

What Could Happen if Cannabis Becomes a Schedule III Drug?

While the HHS recommendation has been provided to the DEA, there is no guarantee that the Drug Enforcement Administration will move ahead. Historically, the DEA has staunchly opposed any attempt to reschedule marijuana.

But if it did happen, what would change? It would legitimize cannabis as an accepted medical treatment option under federal law, and that could do more than elevate marijuana’s status; it could create sweeping positive changes.

More Research About Medical Cannabis

While some barriers that existed to health researchers have been lowered during the Biden administration, getting funded for human health trials and clinical studies about cannabis is still difficult. And that research is desperately needed to better understand medical marijuana.

If cannabis is moved to a Schedule III drug, new research could tell us:

  • What strains work best for certain types of medical conditions?
  • What potency is safer for long-term use (i.e., chronic pain management)?
  • What types of minor cannabinoid and terpene combinations are more effective?
  • What strains and potencies have a higher risk of prescription drug interactions?

Federal law has prohibited funding for cannabis research until very recently. However, changing cannabis to a Schedule III drug would make cannabis an accepted medical treatment. That would allow the federal government to open more funding and grow research into cannabis to improve patient safety and symptom management outcomes.

Cost Savings for Cannabis Companies Could Lower Prices

The cannabis industry is illegal at the federal level. However, state law can make medical cannabis and recreational marijuana (adult use) legal. But tax regulation is controlled by the federal agency (IRS), which means that cannabis companies have big obstacles when it comes to taxes and payment processing, which are federally regulated.

Right now, every cannabis-related business (CRB) experiences business expenses that are far greater than any other industry. Taxes are higher, and they have fewer expense deductions. If marijuana moves to Schedule III, that would change. And those high costs that cannabis businesses face would result in cheaper prices for patients and recreational users.

cannabis legal

Interstate Trade May Open for Cannabis Businesses

Colorado was the leading state for cannabis cultivation in 2022, producing 623 metric tons of raw cannabis. Oregon took second place, producing 614 metric tons, followed by California, with 577 tons of flower grown in 2022.

The states that had the lowest cultivation volume last year were Vermont, Maine, Montana, and Nevada. Cultivation facilities take a long time to develop. Shipping cannabis products over state borders is a federal offense, as a Schedule I prohibited substance. But Schedule III drugs can move freely, which may open interstate commerce and strengthen the efficiency and profitability of cannabis businesses.

That could result in high growth for the American cannabis industry, lower prices, and more jobs in all areas, including cultivation, processing, quality assurance, transportation of cannabis goods, and other ancillary services.

New Employment Opportunities for People With Past Offenses

The cannabis industry provides new employment opportunities, from retail dispensary roles to cultivation, processing, quality assurance (laboratory testing), and more. Did you know, however, that most cannabis-related businesses will not hire someone who has a past criminal offense?

Many people who have great knowledge about marijuana have personal experience using cannabis. And some of them may have prior charges for personal use, whether misdemeanors or felony offenses. Rescheduling marijuana could make it easier to expunge previous charges and may lower barriers to employment, creating new jobs for Americans.

Federal Workers May Be Able to Use Medical Cannabis

If you are a federal employee, using any controlled substance can result in a demotion, suspension, or dismissal. In certain circumstances, employees must complete a substance abuse program and have the opportunity to test again.

Federal employees who live in states where there are legalized recreational marijuana or medical marijuana programs are prohibited from using cannabis. Even if state laws permit them, if cannabis is moved to a Schedule III drug, federal government employees who are qualified patients could get their medical cards without fear of being penalized for marijuana restrictions.

exploring the implications hhs's plan to move cannabis to schedule iii

Nationwide Medical Cannabis Reciprocity May Happen

Right now, there are only a handful of states that provide reciprocity. If you have a Texas medical card and you travel to Florida, you are not permitted to visit a dispensary to purchase cannabis products. Texas medical cardholders are also not legally permitted to possess or use medical cannabis in Florida, as our home state laws do not recognize medical cards from other jurisdictions.

Reciprocity (or accepting out-of-state medical cards) could be greatly expanded if cannabis becomes a Schedule III drug. This would make it easier for patients with an MMJ card to travel nationally. And it would also support dispensaries, which could sell to any patient with a valid medical card, regardless of where they live.

Lower Penalties for Cannabis Offenses

One important change that would happen if cannabis moves to Schedule III on the Controlled Substances Act, would be a change in criminal penalties for minor possession. Trafficking, manufacturing, cultivation, or violent crimes involving cannabis would be unlikely to change. But the average American charged with a small quantity could see a fine instead of a mandatory misdemeanor or felony charge.

The “War on Drugs” has disproportionately affected black and brown Americans and their communities. The DEA reported there were 5,061 marijuana-related arrests in 2022, which was 24% lower in number compared to 2021. Moving cannabis to a Schedule III classification could substantially reduce arrest rates for personal use.



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