Following the Department of Health and Human Services’ recommendation to reschedule marijuana to Schedule III, a less restrictive drug classification, the Drug Enforcement Administration is conducting a review of marijuana’s Schedule I status. Based on past precedent, these actions make rescheduling marijuana all but imminent.
This sounds like good news, but drug policy is anything but straightforward, and the devil is in the details.
Daily headlines, sent straight to your inbox.
Subscribe to our newsletter to keep up with the latest at and around USC.
Marijuana, or cannabis, is a plant that contains psychoactive compounds, and its thousands of years of use spans numerous civilizations dating back to Chinese medicine in 2800 B.C. Despite its millennia of use, marijuana’s illegality in the modern United States is as recent as 1970, when it was classified as a Schedule I drug — the most restrictive category under the Controlled Substances Act.
The DEA has upheld this classification ever since on the basis that marijuana has “a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the U.S., and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.”
These premises have been repeatedly contradicted by findings in the medical field, even well before the time of illegalization. Today, at least 38 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized medical marijuana use, but the plant remains federally illegal, creating a complex patchwork of regulation and enforcement ambiguity across the U.S.
But the most urgent and relevant debate on marijuana should be its relationship to systemic racism in our government and society. We can trace the relationship between race and cannabis criminalization to the War on Drugs, a policy initiated by the Nixon administration to fight increasing drug use in the 1970s.
In reality, this agenda was weaponized to fuel the mass incarceration of millions of Black Americans, whose incarceration rate exploded from 600 per 100,000 to 1,808 per 100,000 from 1970 to 2000. Before the War on Drugs, anti-cannabis actors throughout the century incited public fear by increasingly associating the plant with anti-Mexican immigrant sentiment.
The legacies of racism, the War on Drugs and mass incarceration continue on today: Black people are arrested at four times the rate of white people for marijuana despite roughly equal usage and almost 80% of people serving federal drug sentences are Black or Latine.
The momentum to legalize marijuana has built over time, and even just a few years ago rescheduling marijuana was considered a political impossibility. But rescheduling, rather than descheduling marijuana, will continue to exact harm on communities brutalized by marijuana politics.
Firstly, whether marijuana meets the criteria for the proposed Schedule III (or Schedules IV and V) is scientifically dubious. Schedule III substances are defined as “drugs with a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence,” and each successive schedule indicates a lower risk of potential for abuse.
But numerous studies, including the recent review by the Department of Health and Human Services, find low risks of dependency and harm on marijuana users — far lower than for alcohol, which along with many other addictive substances such as tobacco, isn’t even on the list of controlled substances.
More urgently, rescheduling does not solve the contradictions between federal and state laws, especially for states with developed medical or recreational industries. While the notable benefit of rescheduling is that it opens the possibility of medical use, in practice this would be a lengthy process of Food and Drug Administration approvals, product registration and prescriptions that differ from existing state programs. Recreational users would still be subject to federal prosecution and medical users under state programs are shielded only by temporary congressional appropriations.
Worse, the rescheduling of marijuana extends racial injustice by continuing to criminalize a plant that never should have been made illegal in the first place. It fails to address both federal penalties and state prosecution, which in 2023 amounted to at least 227,108 arrests (92% of which were for possession), a number the FBI says is likely significantly underestimated.
While it may appear that many states, like California, are doing just fine without federal legalization, California’s own legalization process has resulted in deep environmental harm, a state industry dominated by the illegal market and minimal opportunity for small businesses to compete. All of this disproportionately punishes the Black, Latine and Indigenous communities that suffered under criminalization.
The patchwork of incomplete and conflicting state policies is a direct consequence of the federal government’s unwillingness to own up to its wrongdoing. Rescheduling marijuana is at most a symbolic move, but the communities targeted and marginalized by our government deserve far more than symbolism: They deserve comprehensive drug reform. And while unraveling inequalities will require a lengthy and multifaceted approach, descheduling — not rescheduling — is the right place to start.