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DEA Will Act on Marijuana Rescheduling Before Obama Leaves Office — What Could It Mean?

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The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration plans to make a decision on pending petitions to reclassify marijuana under federal law within the next three months.

The timeline was revealed in a new letter to several U.S. senators signed by DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg, along with the heads of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

“DEA understands the widespread interest in the prompt resolution to these petitions and hopes to release its determination in the first half of 2016,” the federal officials said in the letter, obtained by The Huffington Post.

As Marijuana.com first reported last year, DEA has already received a recommendation from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about whether to move marijuana out of its current status as a Schedule I substance, though it is unknown what that recommendation entails.

Until now, it was uncertain whether the agency would act on the petitions prior to President Obama leaving office or wait until a new president is in charge to announce the decision.

“President Obama currently has very mixed legacy on medical cannabis,” Mike Liszewski of Americans for Safe Access said in an interview, citing the fact that federal officials shuttered more state-legal medical marijuana businesses during the first term of this administration than were closed during two terms of the George W. Bush presidency.

On the other hand, Obama later signed into law two budget bills that prevent the Department of Justice from spending money to interfere with state medical cannabis laws.

“Moving cannabis out of Schedule I would certainly do a lot to more squarely put him on the right side of history on this issue,” Liszewski said.

Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) is the most restrictive category, one that is supposed to be reserved for drugs with no medical value. While heroin and LSD are also in Schedule I, cocaine is classified in Schedule II, a less burdensome designation.

Some cannabis law reform advocates have framed rescheduling as a silver bullet solution to the war on marijuana, while others have said it would do little if anything to change the current federal approach to the drug and could take the wind out of the sails of broader legalization efforts.

While rescheduling alone would not affect marijuana’s criminal status or the penalties doled out by federal courts, it would have several real-world policy impacts and would send a strong symbolic signal that could demonstrate momentum and propel further reforms on the state, federal and international levels.

Moving marijuana out of Schedule I (or, removing it from the CSA altogether, like alcohol and tobacco) would have a number of effects.

Reclassification to Schedule III or lower, for example, would protect federal employees who use marijuana from a Reagan-era executive order that defines illegal drugs as Schedule I or II substances.

Additionally, only drugs under Schedules I and II are affected by the tax provision known as “280E,” which disallows state-legal businesses from deducting normal operational expenses from their federal taxes.

Because current laws and regulations prevent the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of National Drug Control Policy from fairly evaluating Schedule I drugs, reclassification would allow the government to examine and communicate about marijuana in a way that prioritizes science instead of an outdated drug war mindset.

Rescheduling would also make scientific research easier. Douglas Throckmorton, deputy director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, testified before the Senate last June that marijuana’s Schedule I status means there are “additional steps” that scientists wishing to study it must take and that reclassification would expand opportunities for research.

Moving cannabis out of Schedule I would also put an end to threats that newspapers who mail publications containing marijuana advertisements are facing from the U.S. Postal Service, since the federal law that agency cites to justify its actions only applies to Schedule I drugs.

Finally, removing marijuana from Schedule I, a classification supposed to be reserved for substances with no medical value and a high potential for abuse, would send a strong message to state lawmakers and international leaders that the federal government is beginning to address decades of mistakes on marijuana policy, and that they should too.

As a point of reference, legal synthetic THC pills (dronabinol, marketed as Marinol) are currently categorized in Schedule III.

DEA’s Rosenberg previously called medical marijuana “a joke,” which generated outrage among families who have seen the benefits of cannabis. More than 150,000 people signed a Change.org petition calling for his ouster from the agency.

In the new letter, Rosenberg and the other federal officials reveal that in addition to nearing a decision on the scheduling status of whole-plant marijuana, DEA is also undertaking a separate review of whether cannabidiol (CBD), a component of marijuana that has shown promise in reducing the symptoms of severe seizure disorders, should be reclassified under federal law.

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