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US Government Expected to Reclassify Cannabis as Lower-risk Drug

US Government Expected to Reclassify Cannabis as Lower-risk Drug

It is a move that has been expected for a long time. After years of promoting cannabis as "medication" and downplaying the risks of marijuana use, the cannabis industry is about to score another victory.

On April 30, US Attorney General Merrick Garland recommended loosening the restrictions on marijuana, a historic shift in federal drug policy that could broaden access to the drug for "medicinal" and recreational use even further and boost the cannabis industries in states where it is already legal.

"Today, the Attorney General circulated a proposal to reclassify marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III," the Justice Department said in a statement. "Once published by the Federal Register, it will initiate a formal rule-making process as prescribed by Congress in the Controlled Substances Act." On May 13, the Drug Enforcement Administration added its support for reclassification.

The proposal, which the White House has one to three months to review, would recognize the unproven "medical" uses of cannabis and acknowledge it has less potential for abuse than some of the nation's most dangerous drugs. However, it would not legalize marijuana outright for recreational use on a federal level. 

The proposed change could nevertheless increase the profits of the cannabis industry dramatically. Unsurprisingly, industry leaders believe that declassifying cannabis altogether, as opposed to reclassifying it, would be even better.

The FDA has approved just one drug, the epileptic seizure treatment Epidiolex, that contains CBD derived from cannabis plants. It has also approved three drugs containing synthetic THC compounds to treat nausea associated with cancer treatment and reduce wasting associated with HIV/AIDS. Like all prescription drugs, these FDA-approved medications are prescribed by doctors to treat very specific medical conditions. 

By contrast, “medical” cannabis can only be recommended by doctors to address a range of ailments. Research on other claimed medical and health benefits of marijuana is scant to non-existent, while the negative effects of mass consumption are becoming more and more evident in states that have legalized cannabis. One of those states is Colorado, where Chuck Smith, who leads an alliance of cannabis business executives, described rescheduling as progress.

"The HHS rescheduling recommendation marks a historic step toward federal cannabis policy reform," Smith said. "For over a decade, Colorado has been demonstrating states' ability to effectively regulate cannabis for medical and broader adult use, and it's time for federal law to reflect that reality. State-legal cannabis businesses that create jobs, pay taxes, and provide adults and medical patients with safe and legal access to cannabis deserve to be treated fairly, and this would be a big step in that direction."

Legalization in states across the nation has fueled rapid growth of the marijuana industry, with an estimated worth of nearly $30 billion. Rescheduling cannabis could reduce the tax burden by allowing deductions unavailable for a Schedule I substance. There are fears that rescheduling cannabis could now open the door for large pharmaceutical companies and other major corporations to take over the industry.

NRT Behavioral Health™ President Ben Cort has been raising awareness of the commercialization of cannabis products for years. In his book Weed, Inc., Cort explained how the potent products the marijuana industry is selling in the 21st century are a far cry from the weed people smoked in the 1970s. The reason is the dangerously high THC content of today's cannabis products.

THC (delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol) is the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, and THC levels in cannabis products have dramatically increased in the last few decades from less than one percent THC in the seventies to well beyond 15 percent in recent years. And that's just the plants—concentrates can reach much higher levels of THC. 

"The average cannabis product sold in Colorado in 2020 had a THC content of 69 percent," says Cort. "Concentrates are everywhere and are not just being used by the fringe; they are mainstream, and they are what many people picture when they talk about marijuana," Cort wrote in Weed, Inc. "You are going to think some of this must be talking about hardcore users on the edge, but it's not; concentrates are everywhere and have become synonymous with weed for this generation of users." 

The National Academies of Science pointed out that despite a growing acceptance of marijuana in many states, "evidence regarding the short- and long-term health effects of cannabis use remains elusive" and that "no accepted standards for safe use or appropriate dose are available to help guide individuals as they make choices regarding the issues of if, when, where, and how to use cannabis safely and, in regard to therapeutic uses, effectively."

A 2020 letter from the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse said, "Marijuana impairs short-term memory and judgment and distorts perception" and, as a result, "can impair performance in school or at work and make it dangerous to drive."

Although it is illegal for Coloradans under 21 to buy, have, or use retail marijuana, and it is a felony for anyone to give, sell, or share marijuana with anyone under 21, teenage consumption and addiction are on the rise. 

A 2021 systematic review found that past-year cannabis vaping nearly doubled from 2017 to 2020 in adolescents - jumping from 7.2 percent to 13.2 percent," warned Ty Schepis, a professor of psychology at Texas State University, in a recent article for The Conversation. "A more recent study in five northeastern US states found that 12.8 percent of adolescents vaped cannabis in the past 30 days, a more narrow time frame that suggests potential increases in use. In addition, a 2020 study found that one-third of adolescents who vape do so with cannabis concentrates."

The notion that Colorado is effectively regulating the medical adult use of cannabis seems to provide a partial view of cannabis use within the state by not also acknowledging widely accepted concerns about the negative effects of use and increased underage use. However, the state may only be providing minimal resources when it comes to regulating adult cannabis use, according to Ben Cort’s forthcoming sequel to “Weed, Inc.” The book also talks about how the state’s Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED), which is tasked with regulating commercial cannabis, seems primarily to be a recruiting apparatus to help grow Colorado’s commercial THC industry.

Cannabis misuse by adolescents is dangerous because it can alter the way their brains develop, explained Schepis. "Research shows that the brains of adolescents who use cannabis are less primed to change in response to new experiences, which is a key part of adolescent development. Adolescents who use cannabis are also more likely to experience symptoms of schizophrenia, struggle more in school, and engage in other risky behaviors."

Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) President Kevin Sabet, a former White House drug policy advisor to Presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton, issued the following statement:

"Politics and industry influence have loomed over this decision from the very beginning. [...] Now, against the recommendations of prior Attorneys General, the medical community, and law enforcement, the Administration unilaterally reversed decades of precedent despite volumes of data confirming marijuana's harmfulness. Moreover, a drug can be taken off Schedule I only if it has accepted medical use—raw, crude marijuana has never passed safety and efficacy protocols. A drug isn't medicine because it's popular."

"Medical and scientific studies, as well as government data, have conclusively linked THC drugs with addiction, psychosis, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, suicidality, and IQ loss, among other impacts," Dr. Sabet wrote. "The Administration's effort to push through this action in an election year could be perceived as a thinly veiled attempt to reverse polling trends with the principal targets of the pot industry, namely young people."

Ben Cort also believes that the decision is “a reflection of politics rather than medical science. I’ve had several conversations with the nation’s thought leaders and researchers since this recommendation was leaked. They all agreed that there is no science to support the decision, while there are a lot of scientific indicators encouraging a much more careful and deliberate approach.” 

“This is a tight election year and somebody did the math on how many swing votes this might pull for the current administration,” says Cort. “We still haven’t learned our lesson as a nation that thoughtless engagement with psychoactive intoxicants doesn’t end well. We still haven’t understood that bad things happen when corporations sell things that have addictive potential.”  While groups promoting the purchase and use of THC products continue to get their way, across-the-board decriminalization of drug possession and use has seen some pushback lately. 

Marijuana use can lead to the development of cannabis use disorder (CUD), which takes the form of addiction in severe cases. Recent data suggest that 30 percent of those who use THC products may have some degree of marijuana use disorder. People who begin using marijuana before the age of 18 are four to seven times more likely to develop a marijuana use disorder than adults.

At a time when growing evidence suggests that cannabis legalization and commercialization are making potentially dangerous products more available, increasing accidental THC poisonings and other adverse health events, and are not resulting in the promised financial boons to cannabis business owners or states where cannabis is legal, rescheduling could exacerbate these problems. 

Regardless of whether rescheduling cannabis changes the way it is sold, the move is likely to reduce further the perceived dangers associated with cannabis use. Research suggests that young adults are more likely to use cannabis after it is legalized because they perceive it as less dangerous. 

Rescheduling cannabis could send an even more significant signal to people that cannabis is not harmful, which may further increase its use. The same study suggests that increased use by adolescents and young adults could stimulate cannabis use disorder while making it less likely that they seek treatment. 

The behavioral healthcare field is seeing more patients presenting with cannabis use disorder and complex cases linked to high-potency THC use that are difficult to treat. Rescheduling could result in more people than ever before believing that cannabis use is without risks while THC products are more potent than ever, a situation that may lead to more problematic cannabis use with implications for individuals, families, and communities nationwide. 

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