A group of Democratic lawmakers is renewing pressure on the Drug Enforcement Administration to remove marijuana from its current position on a list of the most dangerous drugs, a category that includes heroin and ecstasy.
Marijuana’s classification as a “Schedule I” drug is “a main barrier” to research on its potential health benefits and conflicts with a decision by half of the states to approve medical marijuana laws, eight Democratic senators wrote this week in a letter to the DEA and the Department of Justice, its parent agency.
DEA spokesman Russ Baer said in an interview that the agency is in the “final stages” of its deliberation on the issue, and he said a decision on whether to reschedule marijuana is expected “sometime soon.”
Mr. Baer said he did not expect an answer by June 30, however, despite previous guidance from DEA officials that they hoped to make a decision in the first half of the year.
An increasing number of states now allow marijuana to be used for medical purposes, but the drug remains strictly illegal according to U.S. law. The federal government has adopted a practice of not prosecuting those who use marijuana according to their home-state laws.
The senators argued that this “dissonance” between state and federal laws has “wide-ranging implications for legitimate marijuana businesses, including access to banking services, the ability to deduct business expenses from taxes, and access for veterans.”
Signers of the letters are Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Barbara Boxer of California, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, and Cory Booker of New Jersey.
After the Food and Drug Administration determines whether a substance has a medical use, the DEA performs its own analysis and classifies a drug under one of five categories that also take into account their abuse potential.
The DEA received a binding assessment from the FDA about whether marijuana should be considered to have a medical use nine to 12 months ago, Mr. Baer said.
That decision, which neither the DEA nor the FDA would discuss, is the controlling factor in whether the DEA will remove marijuana from Schedule I, said Mr. Baer. But regardless of the FDA’s decision, the DEA is required by law to do its own analysis, he said.
Drugs under Schedule I, which includes marijuana along with heroin, LSD and ecstasy, are considered to have a high potential for abuse without any offsetting medical use.
If marijuana were switched to a Schedule II drug, for example, it would join a group of prescription painkillers including oxycodone and fentanyl, which are considered to have medical benefits despite their high potential for abuse. Cocaine is also on that list.
The DEA’s categories extend to Schedule V, which has the least potential for abuse and includes such substances as cough syrup and anti-diarrhea medication.
Congress recently passed bills to combat the country’s growing problems with painkiller abuse and heroin use, which health officials say are now causing more Americans to die from drug overdoses than traffic accidents.