DEA Aims to Reclassify Marijuana as Less Dangerous Drug


Although the US Drug Enforcement Agency's (DEA) proposed reclassification of marijuana wouldn’t legalize the drug nationwide, it could shake up the current marijuana landscape.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has proposed to reclassify marijuana—a drug that has been increasingly accepted by the American public—from a high-regulation Schedule I drug to a less-restrictive Schedule III drug. What might this move mean for the future of marijuana in the country?

What’s the Issue?

The DEA has proposed to reclassify marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule III drug, loosening restrictions on its use.1

Marijuana leaves / rangizzz -

Marijuana leaves / rangizzz -

As a Schedule I drug, marijuana shares the same classification as heroin and LSD, characterized by a lack of medical use and a high potential for abuse; drugs from this camp are subject to the highest regulations. If moved to Schedule III, marijuana will join the likes of ketamine, Tylenol with codeine, and anabolic steroids, and instead be recognized as a less dangerous drug. It will, however, remain a controlled substance.

The recommendation to reschedule marijuana is supported by guidance from the federal Health and Human Services Department following its review of the drug’s current classification.2

Why it Matters

State drug policy has outpaced federal drug policy in recent years. Alongside a more tolerant population, 38 states have legalized medical marijuana and 24 have legalized its recreational use.1 Although the move by the DEA to reclassify marijuana as Schedule III would not federally legalize it, the decision has the potential to positively impact the clinical and economic spaces associated with the drug.

  • The current Schedule I classification of marijuana makes it difficult to study in clinical research. Rescheduling it to a Schedule III drug, however, will make studying its harms and benefits easier, “[opening] up the door for [investigators] to be able to conduct research with human subjects with cannabis,” said Susan Ferguson, director of University of Washington’s Addictions, Drug & Alcohol Institute in Seattle.2
  • Businesses involved in “trafficking” Schedule I or II drugs such as marijuana are prohibited from deducting rent, payroll, and other expenses from their taxes under the federal tax code.3 Since this code doesn’t apply to Schedule III drugs, the proposed change could ease tax burdens by more than 70% for the industry, translating to more than $2 billion saved per year.1,4
  • Although the change to reschedule marijuana as a Schedule III drug—if finalized—is a major step in the right direction, the federal government still has a long way to go to regulate and decriminalize the drug. The change won’t provide production standards, universal labeling, or childproof packaging, nor will it largely affect how marijuana is treated in criminal cases, as those jurisdictions are made at the state-level.4 The reclassification would not impact people already in the criminal justice system, either.2

Expert Commentary

As with all federal decisions, the proposal to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule III drug has been met with criticism and support. Some, such as those from the national anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, says the move contradicts science.2 Others say that although the move is a good step forward, it is not worthwhile, and that more action should be taken to remove marijuana entirely from the Controlled Substance list, similarly to alcohol or tobacco.

  • “Today, the Attorney General circulated a proposal to reclassify marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III. Once published by the Federal Register, it will initiate a formal rulemaking process as described by Congress in the Controlled Substances Act,” said Xochitl Hinojosa, director of public affairs at the Department of Justice, commenting on the timeline—likely to exceed several months or a year before a final decision is made— of the proposed change.5
  • According to Kaliko Castille, former president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, rescheduling marijuana just “re-brands prohibition…Schedule III is going to leave it in this kind of amorphous, mucky middle where people are not going to understand the danger of it still being federally legal.”2
  • “The only way to fully resolve the myriad of issues stemming from the federal conflict with state law is to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and regulate the product in a manner similar to alcohol,” said Aaron Smith, chief executive officer of the National Cannabis Industry Association.4

In-Depth Insights

  • Over the past 2 decades, the percentage of adults who support the legalization of marijuana has more than doubled from approximately 30% in 2000 to 70% in 2024, according to a poll from Gallup,1 driven by young people and people of color. The proposed reclassification of marijuana could boost support for the Biden Administration among these voter populations in the current election year.
  • Black Americans are disproportionately incarcerated for marijuana-related cases despite consuming marijuana at similar rates to White Americans. The proposed change could pave a path toward advancements in the decriminalization of the drug, a move fervently supported by President Biden. In 2022, the Washington Post reported, “While marijuana arrests overall dropped in the year since Virginia became the first state in the South to legalize, Black adults accounted for nearly 60% of marijuana-related cases before the state’s general district and circuit courts, an analysis of marijuana-related code citations in the state’s court system concluded, despite Black people accounting for about 20% of the state population.”6

Extra Reading

READ MORE: Law and Advocacy Resource Center

1. Miller Z, Goodman J, Mustian J, Whitehurst L. US poised to ease restrictions on marijuana in historic shift, but it’ll remain controlled substance. Associated Press. April 30, 2024. Accessed May 1, 2024.
2. Peltz J, Whitehurst L. What marijuana reclassification means for the United States. Associated Press. May 1, 2024. Accessed May 1, 2024.
3. Peltz J. US regulators might change how they classify marijuana. Here’s what that would mean. Associated Press. August 31, 2023. Accessed May 1, 2024.
4. Flaherty A. Change in how feds see marijuana could mean big tax cut for pot retailers. ABC News. August 31, 2023. Accessed May 1, 2024.
5. Foster, R. Biden Administration could reclassify marijuana as less risky drug. US News & World Report. May 1, 2024. Accessed May 1, 2024.'t%20do,a%20statement%2C%20the%20AP%20reported.
6. Elwood K, Harden JD. After Virginia legalized pot, majority of defendants are still Black. Washington Post. October 16, 2022. Accessed May 1, 2024.
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