Federal scientists recommend easing restrictions on marijuana

Health

In newly disclosed documents, federal researchers find that cannabis may have medical uses and is less likely to cause harm than drugs like heroin.

Marijuana is neither as risky nor as prone to abuse as other tightly controlled substances and has potential medical benefits, and it therefore should be removed from the nation’s most restrictive category of drugs, federal scientists have concluded.

The recommendations are contained in a 250-page scientific review provided to Matthew Zorn, a Texas lawyer who sued Health and Human Services officials for its release and published it online on Friday night. An HHS official confirmed the authenticity of the document.

The records shed light for the first time on the thinking of federal health officials who are pondering a momentous change. The agencies involved have not publicly commented on their debates over what amounts to a reconsideration of marijuana at the federal level.

Since 1970, marijuana has been considered a so-called Schedule I drug, a category that also includes heroin. Schedule I drugs have no medical use and a high potential for abuse, and they carry severe criminal penalties under federal trafficking laws.

The documents show that scientists at the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse have recommended that the Drug Enforcement Administration make marijuana a Schedule III drug, alongside the likes of ketamine and testosterone, which are available by prescription.

The review by federal scientists found that even though marijuana is the most frequently abused illicit drug, “it does not produce serious outcomes compared to drugs in Schedules I or II.”

Marijuana abuse does lead to physical dependence, the analysis noted, and some people develop a psychological dependence. “But the likelihood of serious outcomes is low,” the review concluded.

The review also said there is some “scientific support” for therapeutic uses of marijuana, including treatment of anorexia, pain, and nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy.

Federal officials cautioned that their analysis was not meant to suggest that they had established the safety and effectiveness of marijuana in a way that would support FDA approval, only that data supported some medical uses of marijuana.

These conclusions apparently led the FDA to break from decades of precedent last August and advise the Drug Enforcement Administration to recategorize marijuana, a move first reported by Bloomberg News.

That recommendation is being considered by the DEA, which is expected to formally announce its decision within months. The reclassification will be subject to public comment and debate before it is made final.

The scientific assessment has prompted tensions between career employees at the DEA, a famously conservative law enforcement agency, and the researchers and health officials who support reclassification, according to two senior administration officials.

Xavier Becerra, the health and human services secretary, said in an interview this week that his department had stayed in touch with the DEA about marijuana’s status and had “communicated to them our position.”

“We put it all out there for them,” he said. “We continue to offer them any follow-up, technical information if they have any questions.”

Advocates for the marijuana industry have hailed a possible rescheduling as highly significant, a powerful way to get marijuana businesses out of the shadows and operating on the same tax footing as other major U.S. corporations.

Other experts are more circumspect. They note that any long-running study of marijuana that federal authorities have reviewed may not account for the escalating strength and increasingly frequent use of marijuana, which has been tied to psychiatric problems and chronic vomiting among users in recent years.

For years, there was the promise, ultimately unmet, that marijuana could be used to combat opioid abuse or treat mental health problems, said Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University health policy professor and a former federal drug policy official.

“As the science has gotten better in the intervening decades, most of the therapeutic claims about cannabis have been debunked,” he said.

“And the evidence that cannabis can, in fact, be quite harmful has gotten stronger — yet it is now that the federal government has decided to call it a medicine.”

President Joe Biden urged federal officials to “expeditiously” reexamine marijuana classification in October 2022, when he also issued pardons for those charged with marijuana possession under federal law.

Biden cited the disproportionate rates of arrest and prosecution of people who are Black and Hispanic for marijuana-related crimes, despite similar rates of use among white people. In December, Biden again issued pardons for people who had been convicted of simple possession and use of marijuana on federal land.

Federal data shows that marijuana is popular: An estimated 52 million people in the United States reported using it at some point in 2021. Fewer people, about 36 million, reported marijuana use in the previous month, trailing alcohol and tobacco use.

“Decriminalization and legalization is as popular as it ever was,” Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado, a Democrat, said in an interview last year regarding his state’s early legalization of cannabis.

“None of the horror stories materialized,” he said. “Underage use is down in Colorado. We regulate marijuana like alcohol, effectively. Responsible adults can choose to recreate with alcohol or marijuana in our state, as long as they do it in a safe way and don’t drive, don’t show up at work inebriated.”

In 38 states, marijuana is legal for medical use; it’s legal for recreational use in two dozen states and territories. Its pungent scent has become common in many communities, wafting from car windows at intersections in California and hanging over the crowds in Times Square.

Changing the way federal officials regard marijuana has long been a subject of fierce debate.

In 2016, the DEA rejected a petition to reschedule marijuana, citing federal health officials’ stance at the time: “Marijuana has a high potential for abuse, has no accepted medical use in the United States, and lacks an acceptable level of safety for use even under medical supervision.”

Last month, Michael Miller, a Justice Department official, defended the DEA’s prerogative in making the final decision on the administration’s position.

“DEA has the final authority to schedule, reschedule, or deschedule a drug under the Controlled Substances Act, after considering the relevant statutory and regulatory criteria and HHS’s scientific and medical evaluation,” he wrote in a letter to Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who has pushed the DEA to reconsider marijuana.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.