The U.S. Is Easing Marijuana Restrictions. Here’s How It Works.


The Biden administration moved on Thursday to downgrade marijuana from the most restrictive category of drugs.

The proposed rule, submitted to the Federal Register, is subject to a 60-day comment period, kicking off a lengthy approval process before it takes effect.

The proposal, which would move marijuana to Schedule III, from Schedule I, signals a significant shift in how the federal government views the substance, even as it does not legalize the drug. Its classification as one of the most dangerous and habit-forming substances has long drawn criticism, and recategorizing the drug is an acknowledgment by the federal government that the drug has some medicinal value and lower potential for abuse.

The categories of controlled substances determine production amounts, access, research and legal consequences. Some experts have argued that cigarettes and alcohol, which are not in any of the five categories of controlled substances, should be included in Schedule I because of their demonstrated high risk of abuse and addiction.

In a recorded video, President Biden praised the step, describing it as “monumental.”

“Far too many lives have been upended because of a failed approach to marijuana, and I’m committed to righting those wrongs,” Mr. Biden said. “You have my word on it.”

Here is a look at the five categories, or schedules, including some of the drugs in each designation. Opioids fall into all five schedules, depending on the exact drug.

The federal government classifies these drugs as having no currently accepted medical use. It also says these drugs pose a high risk for abuse. Marijuana has been in this category, along with drugs like heroin, L.S.D., ecstasy and magic mushrooms.

The government says substances in this category have some medical value, even as they pose a high risk for abuse. This includes cocaine, methamphetamine, painkillers like Vicodin, OxyContin and fentanyl; and Dexedrine, Adderall and Ritalin, which are most commonly prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have sought to push fentanyl into a more stringent classification given that it has become a leading cause of death in the country. But doing so would have a detrimental impact on surgery patients because fentanyl is one of the best anesthetics, said Keith Humphreys, a drug policy expert at Stanford University. It also would not address the illegal production of fentanyl, which is what is fueling the overwhelming number of fentanyl-related deaths.

These drugs are considered to have a low to moderate risk of abuse, such as Tylenol with codeine, ketamine, anabolic steroids, testosterone and, eventually, marijuana. Drugs in this category are not subject to the federal income tax rule that has hampered producers in states where marijuana is legal. By law, producers of drugs in the top two categories cannot take tax exemptions for their business expenses like rent, employee salaries and utility bills that support operations.

Until 2014, hydrocodone combination products, most often prescribed as a painkiller — such as Vicodin — was considered a Schedule III drug. But the Drug Enforcement Administration changed that to try to curb the prescription drug abuse that had been sweeping the country at the time.

Drugs in this group are considered to have a low risk of abuse and addiction and require a prescription. They include as anti-anxiety medicine like Xanax and Valium; muscle relaxants; and low-grade pain killers like Tramadol. The sleeping drug Ambien is also in this category.

These are considered the lowest-risk drugs and still require a prescription. Examples include certain cough medicine, drugs to treat diarrhea, such as Lomotil, Motofen and Parepectolin, and the anti-epileptic drug, Lyrica.



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