As one who has been involved in the medical marijuana movement from literally the very beginning* and who brings to this issue forty years of perspective, I can say with certainty that we have never been at a more opportune time to effect dramatic and positive change. Everyone is aware, however, that changing the federal scheduling of marijuana is imperative and since it was the U.S Congress that placed marijuana in Schedule I in 1970, it seems time for Congress to rectify that mistake. Leaving this important decision to the current U.S. agencies charged with cannabis control--DEA, NIDA, and FDA--will not satisfactorily resolve this issue and will likely lead to more confusion and chaos.
It concerns me that all scenarios now on the table attempt to rectify a colossal mistake--the placement of marijuana in Schedule I--with any equally colossal mistake--rescheduling to any of the existing schedules (II, III, IV or V). In fact, placement of cannabis in any of the existing schedules is incorrect for the obvious reason that cannabis is not really a drug but a plant. Obviously it is a plant from which drugs can be processed but it is not, per se, a drug. Moreover, there are a multitude of products that can be created from cannabis such as nutritional products and a vast array of consumer goods.
With that in mind I would like to propose that the U.S look around at how other countries are adapting to the 21st Century with respect to cannabis policy and control. At a recent conference in Sydney, for example, I learned quite a lot about Australia's scheduling system that is remarkably more comprehensive than that of the U.S. It has ten schedules with Schedule 9, "Prohibited Substances," being the most severely restrictive. Not surprisingly, marijuana is contained in this category but Australia also allows for multi-scheduling and so cannabis also appears in Schedule 8 which contains "Controlled Drugs" and thus permits regulated production of medical cannabis products. This multi-scheduling allows for a more broad and accurate definition of substances. And Australia avoids the trap of declaring that cannabis has "no accepted medical use in treatment." That restrictive language appears nowhere in the Australia schedules.
Congress should embrace the concept of additional schedules and, for marijuana only, create Schedule VI. With this start the U.S. could begin the process of reforming the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), create flexibility for the future, and provide a schedule in which all cannabis products--from raw plant to most extracted cannabis products (including pure extract pharmaceutical products and nutritionals) could be placed. It could provide an actual foundation for reform rather than some band-aid measure that is not well thought through and would require future reform. It would allow proper definition of this complex and wondrous substance while providing a new opportunity to construct processes that allow open and regulated research rather than the current shackled and stifled research dictated by an agency focused only on abuse.
There are those who will argue passionately that marijuana should be descheduled entirely. I have heard these arguments for decades and, in some ways, I can support them. But in the practical world of treaties and, more importantly, consumer protection, the U.S. cannot turn its back on the need to regulate cannabis. Charlatans, shysters, and shoddy manufacturers demand that some level of protection be afforded the public when it comes to cannabis, just as it does with any natural substance that is sold to the public. Cannabis is exceptionally complex because it can be used in such a vast array of products, from nutritional supplements to medicine. Hence the need for its own Schedule classification. The current arrangement, cannabis in Schedule I, gives none of these protections. Nor will re-scheduling under the current structure help.
Congress created the Schedules and Congress should change them. It can start simply by creating Schedule VI and placing cannabis in it.
(*The author is the widow of Robert C. Randall, the acknowledged founder of the medical marijuana movement.)