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Should marijuana's status as a strictly controlled substance be downgraded?

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The Drug Enforcement Administration - the DEA - is considering changing how cannabis is regulated. For more than 50 years, it's been classified as a schedule 1 drug, a category for dangerous substances like heroin that have no medical use and a high potential for abuse. This week, the Department of Health and Human Services reportedly recommended relisting cannabis as a schedule 3 drug, which would put it in the company of ketamine, anabolic steroids and Tylenol with codeine. Now, the DEA has the final word. Amanda Chicago Lewis is an investigative reporter who has written about cannabis for outlets such as Rolling Stone and The New York Times. Amanda, why is this happening now?

AMANDA CHICAGO LEWIS: Well, I think this is ultimately a political gesture that President Biden is trying to use to potentially juice his 2024 reelection chances.

MARTÍNEZ: So just that? It's just 'cause it's the popular thing to do now?

LEWIS: Well, you know, I hate to tell you this, but drug scheduling in this country, though we like to pretend it's about science and evidence and though HHS and the White House have been talking about how this is science and evidence based is, in fact, something that's political. It's cultural. It's about race. It's about socioeconomics. And it's never really quite been about science.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Now, how would the federal government's recognition of a medical use for cannabis change how it's prescribed?

LEWIS: So oddly enough, this would make it easier for us to do medical research on cannabis, right? So the schedule 1 designation has ended up being this catch-22 over the last 50 years where it's very difficult to research because it's schedule 1. And we're calling it not having any acceptable medical uses because we can't do that research. So that's been real fun. And it's ultimately going to be, if it gets rescheduled, a lot easier for state-legal cannabis businesses to pay their taxes. Right now, there is a quirk in the tax code that means a state-licensed cannabis business cannot take deductions, so they end up paying closer to a rate of 70% taxes rather than, you know, the normal business might pay, like, 30 or 35%. This is one of the reasons why it's prohibitively expensive to run a legal cannabis business. And it's the reason why this announcement has sent cannabis business stocks soaring.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that because I figured the industry would probably love it or is rooting for it.

LEWIS: Well, to a certain extent, yes. But also, most people in the industry would prefer if cannabis were completely descheduled, right? As I said, the scheduling system doesn't really make sense on a scientific level. If it did, wouldn't alcohol be a controlled substance?

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Now, so one thing though, on rescheduling - and you mentioned science - does that give researchers the opportunity to maybe discover more about cannabis?

LEWIS: Sure. Potentially. But, you know, I think the American public already truly believes that cannabis has huge medical potential. We already have FDA-approved CBD drug for seizures that comes from cannabis. And, you know, we've seen the NIH tell us that cannabis has, like, therapeutic potential for almost all diseases. This is from - two researchers in 2013 put this work out. So there's a lot there we could discover.

MARTÍNEZ: And one more thing really quick, the so-called war on drugs - what could this rescheduling mean for its very harmful side effects over the - over our history?

LEWIS: Yeah. So that is not what this is about, right? And so that's part of why this could be a real empty political gesture because I think the thing that people are upset about when it comes to cannabis being illegal is the fact that we're seeing hundreds of thousands of people arrested every...

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah.

LEWIS: ...Year still for possession. This is not going to change that.

MARTÍNEZ: That's investigative reporter Amanda Chicago Lewis. Thanks, Amanda.

LEWIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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