DEA and FDA Duke it Out Over Marijuana Scheduling


This November, Floridians will vote on an amendment that would allow citizens over 21 years old to use and possess marijuana for recreational reasons. Early polls indicate bi-partisan support. However, whether the amendment builds enough support to reach the 60 percent approval threshold in the next seven months is anyone’s guess. 

If passed, Florida would become the 25th state to legalize recreational marijuana. Even if it doesn’t, ten other states could legalize recreational marijuana use this year. Over the past twelve years, recreational marijuana legalization has rapidly expanded throughout the US, making it one of the quickest and most extensive efforts to liberalize access to controversial drugs in the country’s history.

Despite its rising popularity, marijuana is still illegal and deemed to have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

However, the DEA’s job is to combat drug trafficking and enforce laws that prohibit illicit drug use- not to determine whether drugs have beneficial medicinal uses. That’s what the Food and Drug Administration does- and it’s been very unhappy with the DEA lately. 

FDA Commissioner Robert Califf recently spoke before a House committee and impatiently declared there is “no reason” for the DEA to “delay” rescheduling marijuana from a Schedule 1 substance to a Schedule 3 substance- which has “low potential for physical and psychological dependence.” 

Why does the FDA think this change is warranted? Because it’s following the evidence. 

Despite the DEA’s characterizations, 38 states have approved marijuana for medicinal use starting in 1997. The FDA has approved several marijuana-based medications to help treat extreme nausea stemming from several chemotherapies. The agency also established a testing process to find other potential medicinal uses for cannabis.

These differences go beyond marijuana. Ecstasy and MDMA are also Schedule 1 substances, according to the DEA. Both are likely to be approved to assist in psychotherapy after being selected as a “breakthrough therapy” treatment. 

Evidence for marijuana abuse is more complicated. While much less likely to be abused than other Schedule 1 substances it is lumped with, marijuana misuse is possible. Marijuana use disorder, as it is often called, is a recognized addiction and can severely impact the lives of those who become addicted. 

However, rates of marijuana use disorder were considerably higher before recreational marijuana legalization began. Many questions remain, but lower rates of misuse as marijuana becomes more widely available cast doubts on the drug’s “potential for abuse.”

It is possible that the DEA may not follow the FDA’s advice even though it is the right thing to do. This is because if the DEA regulates marijuana, it could lessen its role in the war against drugs. On the other hand, if the FDA is given more authority to regulate marijuana, it would reduce the DEA’s influence. Either outcome would reduce the DEA’s influence—making it unlikely the bureaucracy would accept this without pushback.

I hate it when paternalistic government agencies fight, especially when it’s the same decades-old fight.