Why Do We Even Have Drug Schedules?

Prior to 1970 there was no such thing as a federal drug schedule. This concept was enacted as part of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and President Nixon’s War on Drugs. The CSA was a politically driven law, not a medically or scientifically generated piece of regulation. The CSA created five schedules allegedly based on medical use and abuse potential.

Although cannabis has a 4,000-year history as a human medication, under federal law it is placed in Schedule I meaning it has no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Marinol, synthetic THC, was approved by the FDA as a medicine in 1985 and, unlike cannabis, it is a Schedule III drug. Notwithstanding this illogical situation, the cannabis plant is considered more dangerous than synthetic THC despite the opposite being true. 

Why is the federal government regulating the practice of medicine when the 9th and 10th Amendments to the Constitution reserve to the states the authority to regulate the practice of medicine? This states’ right was affirmed in the 1925 Supreme Court Decision in Linder v. United States. The federal government has no constitutional authority to regulate the practice of medicine.

So why and how is the federal government able to stick their oar in the water on the use of medicinal cannabis? The federal government’s drug warriors use the fiction that they are regulating interstate commerce per the controversial 1942 decision, Wickard v. Filburn, which had to do with price supports for wheat. The bottom line is that the decision expanded the reach of the federal government at the expense of the states. It made just about anything that could possibly affect interstate commerce, even when the case at bar did not involve interstate commerce, to be within the reach of the federal law and regulation.

The decision in Wickard vs. Filburn has been widely criticized, at least in the abstract, by most conservative judges at all court levels. The ultra-liberal Supreme Court of 1942 reasoned that if everybody grew wheat over their limit it would, or theoretically could, affect interstate commerce. This reasoning stretches the Interstate Commerce Clause of the US Constitution beyond recognition and this decision has long been attacked by conservatives as infringing on states’ rights. The decision in Gonzales v. Raich (2005) cited Wickard v. Filburn in upholding the federal government’s right to ban home-grown cannabis even for medical necessity.

Drug schedules have effectively been used to target and marginalize political opponents of administrations since President Nixon used them to target African Americans, students, anti-war and equal rights advocates. Many moral, ethical, and fiscal problems have been caused and/or exacerbated by cannabis having been defined as Schedule I.

The absurdity of placing cannabis in Schedule I has been widely recognized and repeatedly criticized from both inside and outside the government. Both the DEA’s Chief Administrative Law Judge (1988) and the American Medical Association House of Delegates (2009) have recommended or requested that cannabis be moved to Schedule II. 

If cannabis were Schedule II then it not only could be prescribed by a health care professional, but a pharmacist could, or would, give the patient the same warning they do for Marinol; do not drive, operate heavy equipment or engage in dangerous activity until you determine whether or not this drug interferes with those activities. All products would be properly labeled, and medical cannabis patients could be made aware of therapeutic effects, side effects, contents and how to use their medicine.

So why didn’t the government reschedule cannabis and/or consider de-scheduling over-the-counter use in either 1988 or 2009? That is open to wide speculation that includes guesses anywhere from the petrochemical industry fearing competition from hemp ethanol, the automobile industry’s fear of hemp cars like Ford’s late 1930s prototype, the wood pulp paper industry fearing hemp paper, the textile industry’s fear of hemp fiber and the pharmaceutical industry’s fear of competition from medicinal cannabis and other plants and nutrition. Not to mention the law couldn’t be used to marginalize and discriminate against groups such as the poor, Blacks, Hispanics, youth, and liberals.

We are in 2019 and we need to act accordingly. On the other hand, it may be appropriate to turn back the clock and review the 1937 AMA testimony AGAINST the Marijuana Tax Act (MTA). The AMA testified that they knew of no dangers from the medical use of cannabis.

The Schedule I status continues to be the most significant barrier to performing valuable research and making sure patients’ needs are met, as the AMA pointed out in their 2009 resolution. We still need more research regarding how to best utilize cannabis in the treatment of PTSD, ADD, autism, pain, autoimmune, neurodegenerative disease and cancer. The federal government should be an on ramp to research, not a roadblock.