On May 16, 2024, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) officially took steps to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule III controlled substance. This decision marks a significant shift in US policy on cannabis and has the potential to open new possibilities for the future of marijuana research, relaxed regulation, and decriminalization.

The DOJ’s proposal, issued in a notice of proposed rulemaking to the Federal Register, kicks off a 60-day public comment period, followed by a potential review by an administrative judge. This process allows the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to gather and consider input from the public, leading to a determination on the appropriate schedule for marijuana. However, it is essential to note that until a final rule is published, marijuana will continue to be classified as a Schedule I controlled substance.

According to a statement released by the DOJ on May 16, this proposal is just the beginning of a comprehensive process. The timeline for the official appearance of the proposed rule on the Federal Register site remains uncertain.

The origins of this process trace back to October 2022 when President Joe Biden directed the US Attorney General and the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to conduct a scientific review of marijuana scheduling under federal law. The subsequent 2023 report from the US Food and Drug Administration, a part of HHS, concluded that marijuana has legitimate medical uses and recommended its reclassification from Schedule I to Schedule III.

Building upon this recommendation, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announced in early May 2024 its intention to follow suit. The DEA defines Schedule I drugs as having no accepted medical use and high potential for abuse, including substances like heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. In contrast, Schedule III drugs have a moderate to low dependence potential and recognized medical applications, such as ketamine, acetaminophen with codeine, and buprenorphine.

Despite marijuana’s long-standing violation of federal law in terms of manufacturing, distribution, sale, and use, a growing number of states have taken steps to legalize it.

Currently, 38 states and Washington, DC, have legalized medical cannabis, while 24 states and DC have gone even further by legalizing recreational use.

Under the proposed rule, states that have legalized medical cannabis would be allowed to prescribe it legally under federal law. However, it’s important to note that the manufacture, distribution, and possession of recreational marijuana would remain illegal under federal law.