The Obama administration has rejected efforts to reschedule marijuana to a less restrictive drug category, keeping it classified as a Schedule 1 substance—illegal for any purpose.
That means states that allow marijuana for medical or recreational use will remain in violation of federal law.
The decision, announced by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on Thursday, follows efforts by lawmakers and activists to reschedule marijuana to a category in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) that would loosen restrictions on its use. In a letter to the petitioners—Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, and New Mexico nurse practitioner Bryan Krumm—DEA chief Chuck Rosenberg wrote, "Simply put, evaluating the safety and effectiveness of drugs is a highly specialized endeavor."
The Washington Post explains the impacts of the decision:
The current federal status of marijuana makes it impossible for state-legal marijuana businesses to take the same tax deductions afforded to other business, with some marijuana operations complaining that their effective tax rates are in the range of 60 percent to 90 percent, according to a Denver accountant who works with such businesses, Jordan Cornelius. Federal restrictions also make banks reluctant to work with marijuana businesses, leading many of them to become all-cash operations — with all the risks that entails.
Legalization advocates were disappointed by the ruling, but saw a minor victory in the DEA's decision that it would end its monopoly on marijuana research, which Michael Collins of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) said would remove some obstacles.
It's "a bad day for legalization efforts and a good day for scientists."
—Kevin Sabet, Smart Approaches to Marijuana
"Keeping marijuana in Schedule I shows that the DEA continues to ignore research, and places politics above science," said Collins, the DPA's deputy director of national affairs. "In reality, marijuana should be descheduled and states should be allowed to set their own policies."
Ending the National Institute on Drug Abuse's (NIDA) monopoly, however, "is a very welcome move that will enable more research," Collins added.
For years, the University of Mississippi has been the only institution in the U.S. to grow marijuana for research purposes. NIDA funds the school's program. "This restriction has so limited the supply of marijuana federally approved for research purposes that scientists said it could often take years to obtain it and in some cases it was impossible to get," the New York Times noted on Wednesday, and loosening that particular restriction "will have a significant practical effect."
Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana and a former Obama administration drug advisor, told USA Today that the decision signals "a bad day for legalization efforts and a good day for scientists."
Mason Tvert, spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project, agreed.
"The DEA's refusal to remove marijuana from Schedule I is, quite frankly, mind-boggling," he said Thursday. "It is intellectually dishonest and completely indefensible. Not everyone agrees marijuana should be legal, but few will deny that it is less harmful than alcohol and many prescription drugs. It is less toxic, less addictive, and less damaging to the body."
"We are pleased the DEA is finally going to end NIDA's monopoly on the cultivation of marijuana for research purposes," he continued. "Removing barriers to research is a step forward, but the decision does not go nearly far enough. Marijuana should be completely removed from the CSA drug schedules and regulated similarly to alcohol."
Currently, 42 states and the District of Columbia have adopted laws that recognize marijuana's medical medical value, and four states—Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington—have legalized recreational use. At least eight more states will consider marijuana-related issues in November, including ballot measures for full legalization in Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Maine, and Nevada.