DEA Proposes Reclassification of Cannabis to Schedule III: A Major Shift in Federal Policy

By Zero Point

On May 21, 2024, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) published a notice of proposed rulemaking in the Federal Register, signaling its intent to reschedule marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). This significant development follows recommendations from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and a pivotal opinion from the Department of Justice (DOJ), marking a major shift in federal marijuana policy.

Background and Context

The journey to this proposed rescheduling began nearly a year ago. On August 29, 2023, the HHS sent a letter to the DEA recommending the reclassification of marijuana. The HHS’s recommendation was based on comprehensive scientific research and medical evaluations highlighting the therapeutic potential and lower abuse potential of marijuana compared to other Schedule I substances​.

Further bolstering the case for rescheduling, the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel issued an opinion on April 11, 2024, stating that the United States' international treaty obligations would not prevent the rescheduling of marijuana. This opinion removed a significant legal hurdle and paved the way for the DEA’s proposed rule.

Understanding Drug Scheduling

The Controlled Substances Act categorizes drugs into five schedules based on their medical use, potential for abuse, and safety or dependence liability:

  • Schedule I: Drugs with no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse (e.g., heroin, LSD).
  • Schedule II: Drugs with a high potential for abuse but accepted medical uses with severe restrictions (e.g., cocaine, methamphetamine).
  • Schedule III: Drugs with a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence (e.g., anabolic steroids, codeine products).
  • Schedule IV: Drugs with a low potential for abuse and accepted medical uses (e.g., Xanax, Valium).
  • Schedule V: Drugs with the lowest potential for abuse and accepted medical uses (e.g., cough preparations with less than 200 milligrams of codeine).

Current Status of Cannabis

Cannabis laws in 2024

Currently, cannabis is classified as a Schedule I drug, indicating it is considered to have no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. This classification has been a point of contention, as many states have legalized cannabis for medical and recreational use, and research increasingly supports its medical benefits.

The Case for Reclassification

The DEA's proposal to reclassify cannabis as a Schedule III drug is rooted in several key factors:

  1. Medical Research and Acceptance: Increasing evidence from scientific research supports the therapeutic benefits of cannabis for conditions such as chronic pain, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis. Major medical organizations have also called for reclassification to facilitate further research.
  2. Public Opinion and State Legislation: Public support for cannabis legalization has grown substantially, with many states legalizing cannabis for medical and recreational use. This shift in public opinion has put pressure on federal agencies to reconsider the current classification.
  3. Economic Impact: The legal cannabis industry has become a significant economic force, contributing billions of dollars in tax revenue and creating thousands of jobs. Reclassification could further stimulate economic growth by reducing legal uncertainties and encouraging investment.

Implications of Schedule III Classification

Reclassifying cannabis as a Schedule III drug would have several important implications:

  • Medical Research: Easier access to cannabis for research purposes could accelerate the development of new medical treatments and provide a better understanding of its effects and benefits.
  • Healthcare and Insurance: Physicians could prescribe cannabis more freely, and insurance companies might start covering cannabis-based treatments, making them more accessible to patients.
  • Regulatory Changes: Companies involved in the cannabis industry would face different regulatory requirements, potentially simplifying compliance and reducing costs.
  • Criminal Justice: Reclassification could lead to changes in federal prosecution policies, reducing the number of cannabis-related arrests and incarcerations.

Challenges and Considerations

While the proposed reclassification represents progress, it also presents challenges:

  • Federal vs. State Laws: Discrepancies between federal and state laws could persist, leading to continued legal confusion and conflicts.
  • Regulatory Overhaul: Implementing the new classification would require significant changes to federal regulations, a process that could be complex and time-consuming.
  • Public Health and Safety: Ensuring that reclassification does not lead to increased misuse or abuse of cannabis will be critical, necessitating robust public health strategies and education campaigns.


The DEA's proposal to reclassify cannabis as a Schedule III drug marks a pivotal moment in the ongoing debate over cannabis policy in the United States. This change could unlock new opportunities for medical research, economic growth, and criminal justice reform while aligning federal policy with evolving public attitudes and state laws. However, careful consideration and strategic planning will be essential to navigate the challenges and maximize the benefits of this historic shift.

By reclassifying cannabis, the federal government acknowledges its potential medical benefits and takes a crucial step towards a more rational and evidence-based approach to drug policy. As the conversation continues, it is vital for stakeholders to stay informed and engaged in shaping the future of cannabis regulation.

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