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Marijuana and the Controlled Substances Act: A Schedule I Narcotic?

By on November 6, 2012

Summary (click to view)

  • The Controlled Substances Act was passed in 1970
  • Marijuana is classified under Schedule I of the five Schedules – the most restrictive of categories
  • A Schedule I substance must meet specific criteria for inclusion
  • The classification of cannabis was meant to be temporary until a report by the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse was completed
  • The findings of the report were released in 1972 with the recommendation that marijuana prohibition be lifted
  • The report was ignored by the Nixon administration and marijuana has retained its Schedule I classification since then
  • President Richard Nixon (pictured) ignored the recommendation of his own federally commissioned report to decriminalize marijuana

    TruthOnPot.com – The Controlled Substances Act is the presiding federal U.S. drug policy that was passed by Congress in 1970 to regulate the manufacturing, use and distribution of certain substances. Under this legislation, substances are separated into one of five Schedules (classifications) according to their potential for abuse, accepted medicinal use and international trade laws.

    Cannabis is currently classified as a Schedule I substance – a position it has retained since the Controlled Substances Act was drafted over 42 years ago.

    Schedule I Laws

    The classification of a Schedule I controlled substance is assigned to only the most dangerous and least medically useful of drugs, which subjects both researchers and offenders to the highest level of restrictions and penalties that can be administered. For a drug to be placed in the Schedule I category, it must fulfill all three points of the following criteria:

    1. The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse.
    2. The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.
    3. There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.
    Title 21 of the U.S.C. § 812b

    Classification of Cannabis

    Even at first glance, the definition of a Schedule I substance seems a bit too harsh to be applied to marijuana. In fact, among other drugs that share the same category – such as heroine and opiates – none can make claim to being a treatment for so many disorders while having no risk for overdose like cannabis can. Although its potential for abuse might still be debatable, an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence gathered over the past few decades has proved the last two points as being grossly inaccurate.

    So how has cannabis managed to maintain such a mistaken classification under federal drug policy for all these years? To answer that question, let’s look at how marijuana came to be classified as a Schedule I substance in the first place.

    National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse

    While the Controlled Substances Act was being drafted in 1970, marijuana was placed in its Schedule I category on advice from Assistant Secretary of Health Roger E. Egeberg. In his letter to Harley O. Staggers, Chairman of the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, Egeberg made it clear that the classification was meant to be temporary:

    “Dear Mr. Chairman: In a prior communication, comments requested by your committee on the scientific aspects of the drug classification scheme incorporated in H.R. 18583 were provided. This communication is concerned with the proposed classification of marihuana.
    It is presently classed in schedule I(C) along with its active constituents, the tetrahydrocannibinols and other psychotropic drugs.
    Some question has been raised whether the use of the plant itself produces “severe psychological or physical dependence” as required by a schedule I or even schedule II criterion. Since there is still a considerable void in our knowledge of the plant and effects of the active drug contained in it, our recommendation is that marijuana be retained within schedule I at least until the completion of certain studies now underway to resolve the issue. If those studies make it appropriate for the Attorney General to change the placement of marijuana to a different schedule, he may do so in accordance with the authority provided under section 201 of the bill…”
    Sincerely yours, (signed) Roger O. Egeberg, M.D.

    The reference to “the completion of certain studies now underway” was to the National Commission of Marijuana and Drug Abuse, which was created by public law 91-513 for the specific purpose of studying marijuana abuse in the United States.

    The Commission was chaired by former Pennsylvania Governor Raymond P. Shafer and consisted of 13 members, 9 of which were handpicked by President Nixon himself. To date, the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse is the only congressional commission to ever assess marijuana policy.

    In 1972, the Commission completed and presented their report entitled “Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding” to Congress, which detailed their investigation and overall recommendation for marijuana to be reclassified and prohibition to be ended.

    Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding

    In their report, the commission determined that minor possession offenses should be decriminalized under federal law. Likewise, the Commission recommended that states should also eliminate criminal penalties for minor pot offenses.

    “[T]he criminal law is too harsh a tool to apply to personal possession even in the effort to discourage use. It implies an overwhelming indictment of the behavior which we believe is not appropriate. The actual and potential harm of use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior, a step which our society takes only with the greatest reluctance.”

    The report acknowledged that, decades earlier, “the absence of adequate understanding of the effects of the drug” combined with “lurid accounts of [largely unsubstantiated] ‘marijuana atrocities” greatly affected public opinion and labeled the stereotypical user as “physically aggressive, lacking in self-control, irresponsible, mentally ill and, perhaps most alarming, criminally inclined and dangerous.” However, the Commission found that the drug typically inhibited aggression “by pacifying the user… and generally produc[ed] states of drowsiness, lethargy, timidity and passivity.”

    The findings of the report were met with expected resistance from Congress and were largely ignored by the Nixon Administration. As the infamous white-house tapes would reveal, President Nixon fostered a strong opposition to the Commission’s recommendation even before it was released. In 1971 – a year before the report was completed – Nixon warned Shafer, “You’re enough of a pro to know that for you to come out with something that would run counter to what the Congress feels and what the country feels, and what we’re planning to do, would make your commission just look bad as hell.”

    And despite the firm recommendation of the federally commissioned report that took years to complete, cannabis retained its classification as a Schedule I narcotic under the Controlled Substances Act, which prevents any person or organization from free access to the cannabis plant – whether for recreational, industrial or medical purposes.

    To this day, the decision of the Nixon Administration to ignore the Commission’s recommendation to end prohibition continues to be upheld by federal policymakers.