Marijuana is now legal for medical or recreational use in nearly half of US states, even though the US government still officially puts the drug in the same category as heroin, LSD and ecstasy.
At the federal level, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies cannabis as a schedule 1 substance, the most dangerous class under the Controlled Substances Act, with “a high potential for abuse and potentially severe psychological and/or physical dependence.”
Many scientists say there is little basis to put marijuana in that category, and the DEA’s stance that marijuana has no medicinal use has been widely rebuked in recent years. But marijuana’s dangers and uses have not been definitively established within the scientific community, and that’s partly because of the very limited research done on the subject. Paradoxically, the drug’s schedule 1 status has hamstrung exactly the marijuana research necessary to change its classification.
The schedule 1 status also puts states looking to go their own way on marijuana policy in a legal gray area. In theory, this classification means that any US state seeking to regulate rather than prosecute marijuana distribution is technically violating federal law. But the Department of Justice’s Aug 2013 Cole memo made it clear that the federal government would leave it to states to enforce their own marijuana policy.
And this leaves those in the growing legal marijuana industry in a quandary, since, banks have refused (paywall) to open accounts for marijuana suppliers and distributors, even in states where it is legal, because of the drug’s schedule 1 status.
The DEA has the authority to re-schedule the drug. But such a move would put the agency into a direct confrontation with Congress, which in its current makeup is unlikely to endorse the move. President Barack Obama has said he considers marijuana no worse than alcohol when abused, but also that he will leave it to Congress to determine whether to downgrade its status from schedule