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The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration plans to reclassify cannabis from a Schedule I to a Schedule III drug. Leo Patrizi/Getty Images
  • The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) plans to reclassify marijuana as a less dangerous drug.
  • Although the change will not take effect for at least a year, experts see the move as a significant step forward.
  • The DEA will not make cannabis legal for recreational use across the country, however.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) plans to reclassify cannabis, recognizing it as a less dangerous drug, the Associated Press reported on Tuesday.

The proposal from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) would cover medical use but would not change the legislative position on recreational use.

If this change is implemented, cannabis will move from being a Schedule I to a Schedule III drug, meaning it is less tightly regulated.

Ronald S. Eppen, a partner at Foley & Lardner LLP, who specializes in the cannabis industry, called the move “both overdue and necessary.”

However, the wheels of government tend to move slowly, so the process may take some time.

Eppen guessed it would “be months before the policy change on the ground has occurred — it’ll probably be after the election,” he told Healthline.

First, the proposal would need to get through the White House Office of Management and Budget. Then, the public will be allowed to comment on the proposals, which Eppen told us can sometimes take a year. Finally, an administrative judge will review the case.

However, the DEA has been discussing easing restrictions since the beginning of 2024, and Eppen was surprised at how swiftly they have moved on the matter.

Cannabis downgraded to Schedule III drug

Currently, the DEA considers cannabis a Schedule I drug.

According to their official categorization, Schedule I drugs have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

This explains the current disconnect between states with decriminalized cannabis laws and central government.

Schedule III drugs, on the other hand, are defined as “drugs with a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence.”

According to the DEA, other drugs in this category include “products containing less than 90 milligrams of codeine per dosage unit (Tylenol with codeine), ketamine, anabolic steroids, [and] testosterone.”

This means in the eyes of the law, the DOJ’s move would view cannabis as a much less dangerous drug.

What will rescheduling cannabis do?

While the wait might be long, some are excited about this significant change in direction — the most significant for many decades. Eppen said it’s a “major shift in public policy.”

Until the DOJ’s April 30 announcement, Eppen said that “all branches of the federal government had steadfastly taken the position that cannabis was dangerous, a gateway drug, and had no legitimate medical purpose whatsoever.”

“The executive branch has gone on the record as saying that the past 90 years of cannabis policy is going to be reversed,” he noted.

The change will make certain aspects of the cannabis industry easier. For instance, banking services will be easier to access. As it stands, federal restrictions have made this challenging.

Also, their tax bill might be reduced. As Eppen told Healthline, “Most business expenses related to trafficking illegal narcotics cannot be deducted.” This includes things like payroll, rent, and marketing.

However, these tax rules do not apply to Schedule 3 drugs, which could mean significant savings for cannabis businesses. This helps explain why cannabis stocks spiked in response to the news.

Will more cannabis dispensaries open up?

We asked Eppen whether this change to Schedule III might open the floodgates to cannabis dispensaries, even in states with tougher cannabis laws.

He explained how it is difficult to predict how this will pan out. The first problem is the “mish-mash” of rules between states.

Also, Eppen said that cannabis dispensaries may become unnecessary — you can already pick up other Schedule III drugs in local pharmacies and doctor’s offices.

There are still a great many open questions surrounding how this schedule change will impact businesses.

However, “the cannabis industry will have a say in the shape of these regulations,” Eppen explained, “typically the government does give some weight to the industry’s input, so they’ll try to protect their investment.”

Good news for cannabis researchers

The news of a schedule change is exciting for scientists who study cannabis. Working with Schedule I substances involves jumping through many more hoops than investigating Schedule III drugs.

“There are a lot of barriers to conducting research with substances that are Schedule I, so moving cannabis to a Schedule III will certainly make things easier,” Susan Ferguson, PhD, director of the Addictions, Drug & Alcohol Institute and a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, told Healthline.

For instance, “researchers will be able to purchase cannabis products from local dispensaries, rather than the very few places in the country that are currently authorized to sell cannabis for research,” she noted.

Ferguson said that “many researchers who have an interest in studying cannabis but have been put off by the regulatory hurdles needed to get a Schedule I license will now enter the research arena.”

There are many remaining questions about the medicinal properties of cannabis. So, if it is easier to research, more scientists will conduct investigations, and we will get the answers to these questions much more quickly.

“In addition, human subjects research is very challenging because of the bureaucratic layers with schedule I drugs, so this should increase the number of studies in people,” Ferguson told Healthline.

Similarly, Ferguson explained how rescheduling cannabis “would allow us to study the impact and effects of ‘real-world’ cannabis use, i.e., the actual products that are being consumed. Researchers will be able to assess the harms and/or benefits of these products, which in turn will better educate the public and inform policy and practice.”

Eased cannabis laws not linked to increased substance use

No doubt, some will be concerned about the health implications of cannabis being more freely available.

However, a recent review published in JAMA Pediatricsfound that therewere “few effects” of recreational cannabis legalization on adolescent substance use.

Others worry that the legislation change will add more confusion to an already muddled mix of laws across the states.

Similarly, some believe the change does not go far enough — they call for full legalization and an end to this unusual state of legal limbo.

Eppen believes that, in the future, cannabis will be legislated and taxed in a similar way to alcohol. However, he said he expects that to take at least a decade.

For now, politicians, scientists, and the general public will all be focused on these changes as they roll out.

The takeaway

The DEA announced that cannabis will be downgraded to a Schedule III from a Schedule I drug. This change, which will impact science and the cannabis industry, may come into full effect in 2025.