In November the UN will review marijuana’s drug status, a move that prompted the FDA asked the public for comments on marijuana and the potential impact of reclassifying marijuana’s drug status.
Who says the federal government doesn’t seek public input? Well, a lot of people do, with good reason, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did seek public input on marijuana laws.
From October 10 to October 31, the FDA asked the American public to comment on the “abuse potential, actual abuse, medical usefulness, trafficking, and impact of scheduling changes on availability for medical use” of cannabis and several other substances, including fentanyl and tramadol.
In total, the FDA asked the public about 16 scheduled substances, but cannabis received most of the attention. Although over 30 states have legalized cannabis in some form, with more set to legalize marijuana in the midterm elections — either recreational, medical or both — marijuana remains illegal at the federal level.
Marijuana a Schedule 1 Drug
Since 1970 and the advent of the Controlled Substances Act under President Richard Nixon, marijuana has been classified as a Schedule I drug, the top of five tiers of scheduling, meaning a drug with a high potential for abuse with no medical benefit. Heroin and ecstasy are also Schedule I drugs. Many Americans have had a decades-long fight to reschedule cannabis to a lower schedule.
Almost since marijuana was first classified this way, advocates have been fighting to “reschedule” it to a lower tier, arguing that the research and scientific body of evidence about its potential for medical use justifies the move.
Because of cannabis’ Schedule I status, there are harsh federal penalties despite the fact that the majority of states have legalized it. Criminal penalties are still harsh at the federal level, and the Schedule I status greatly restricts research on the plant’s medicinal benefits. Because American banks are federally insured, American cannabis businesses have great difficulty getting even the most basic of banking services.
United Nations Could Reclassify Marijuana
The FDA will use the public comments to prepare a response to the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO), which is seeking input on whether to reclassify certain drugs per existing international drug treaties.
The U.S. has a role in the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and is required to notify WHO with any new information about a substance that might constitute a change in how the substance is controlled internationally.
Many suspect that these comments will serve double duty, and that the FDA is seeking input for its own possible descheduling of cannabis in general or select uses of the drug.
The American government is making progress in the cannabis world. In June, the FDA approved Epidiolex, the first cannabis-derived CBD-based drug from GW Pharmaceuticals. Epidiolex significantly reduces seizures in patients with two rare forms of childhood epilepsy—Dravet syndrome and Lennox Gastaut syndrome. The drug contains a high concentration of cannabidiol (CBD), a naturally occurring compound in the cannabis plant. A few months later, the FDA descheduled Epidiolex but CBD and cannabis remain as Schedule I drugs on the DEA list.
Americans Flood the FDA With Comments on Marijuana
Over 10,000 comments came flooding in to the FDA. Comments range from individuals with personal stories about how medical marijuana has saved them to large corporations talking about the economic benefits of nationwide recreational legalization. Many responses centered on cannabis being far less dangerous than legally prescribed opioids.
Many of the comments focused on telling the FDA that the U.S. needed to catch up with its neighbors to the north and south. Canada legalized recreational cannabis use across the entire country on October 17. Mexico has not formally legalized recreational cannabis use yet — that’s a job for their Congress — but the Supreme Court did effectively end prohibition. While no formal law has replaced prohibition, anyone facing charges of recreational cannabis use can point to the Supreme Court ruling and effectively have their charges dismissed. The laws are still on the books but are basically not enforceable. It is not clear whether Mexico will go the route of Canada and legalize cannabis across the nation, or whether they will take a more restrictive approach. The decision should be made in the coming months.
Just as in the United States, the United Nations also maintains a drug schedule under the Psychotropic Convention. The 41st Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) will convene in Geneva later in November to “review psychoactive substances on their potential to cause dependence, abuse and harm to health, and their potential therapeutic applications.” Subsequently, WHO will make recommendations to the UN Secretary-General on the “need to change international control of any of these substances,” including tightening as well as loosening restrictions.