Those who use cannabis — whether they’re stoners, social smokers, or medical patients — may never have heard of Schedule 1 of the U.S. Controlled Substances Act.
But they probably know that the federal government considers the sale and use of weed to be illegal, even if a state has legalized it.
It’s a strange dichotomy, being able to “legally” purchase and enjoy an “illegal” substance (or its medical benefits) in nearly three-quarters of American states. That situation has existed ever since California approved the sale and use of medical marijuana in 1996. And there’s no sign that the situation will change in the near future, either.
Why do the feds still classify cannabis as an illegal substance? A lot of it has to do with the Controlled Substances Act.
A Brief History of Marijuana in America
Cannabis existed long before the United States did, of course. It’s believed to have first been used in Central Asia and Western China nearly 12,000 years ago, and nomads carried its seeds around the world over time . Then, as of now, it was valued for both its fibers and its psychoactive properties.
There are two types of cannabis plants, hemp, and marijuana. When the land that became America was still colonized by the British, hemp was widely grown in order to produce products like rope, paper, and cloth. In fact, Virginia passed a law in 1619 that required every farm in the colony to grow hemp. It could even be used as legal currency.
Over time, hemp was replaced by other, more modern materials, so U.S. hemp production began to fall after the Civil War. For the marijuana plant, though, the story is very different.
In the late 1800s, marijuana became a relatively-common ingredient in American medicines, and you could buy it in pharmacies. And at the beginning of the 20th century, after the Mexican revolution, an influx of Mexican immigrants brought a custom with them to America: the recreational use of weed.
Within 20 years, more than half the states had outlawed marijuana, partly due to “research” linking pot to violence and crime, and partly because of racially-motivated reasons. The infamous movie “Reefer Madness” followed soon after that, and in 1937 the federal government passed the Marihuana Tax Act (sic), essentially criminalizing the drug except for industrial or medical use. 
Things got more serious in the 1950s when Congress passed two laws, including the Narcotic Control Act . The latter set devastating penalties for weed possession and use, including a two-to-ten-year minimum federal sentence for first-time offenders. Those penalties were largely repealed in 1970 after politicians recognized they hadn’t done much good.
But the playing field changed the following year.
The Controlled Substances Act
Even though there were federal penalties on the books for cannabis use, its legal status still hadn’t been comprehensively addressed.
On May 1, 1971, the U.S. Controlled Substances Act took effect. The legislation was part of the Nixon Administration’s new “War on Drugs,” and it defined five categories (which the law called “schedules”) of controlled substances:
- Schedule 1: High potential for abuse, no accepted medical use, lack of accepted safety.
- Schedule 2: High potential for abuse, an existing medical use, abuse could lead to addiction.
- Schedule 3: Lower potential for abuse, an existing medical use, abuse could lead to limited addiction.
- Schedules 4 and 5: Much lower potential for abuse.
Responsibility for enforcing the Act was given to the Drug Enforcement Administration when it was established two years later. Things haven’t changed much since then, although a couple of drugs have been moved between schedules over the 50 years that the Act has been in effect.
Putting aside the growing evidence of marijuana’s effectiveness as a medical treatment, some eyebrows were raised when it was classified as a “schedule 1” drug. It remains there today, alongside heroin, LSD, ecstasy (and psychedelic mushrooms). By contrast, cocaine, methamphetamine, oxycodone, Vicodin, Dilaudid, Adderall, and Ritalin are some of the substances in schedule 2.
(Schedule 3 includes anabolic steroids and Tylenol with codeine; Schedule 4 includes Xanax and Ambien, Schedule 5 includes Lyrica and Robitussin with codeine.)
How can weed be put into the “worst” category of drugs with heroin? Does the government really consider it to be worse than coke and meth?
Not exactly. The DEA says that the categories don’t specify how “dangerous” drugs are. They’re placed into Schedule 1 instead of Schedule 2 because they have no accepted medical value, so they theoretically deserve more attention from the DEA. Being in Schedule 1 doesn’t mean that the government considers marijuana to be more dangerous.
That may sound lame, but it’s true that penalties for trafficking weed are usually lower than they are for trafficking coke.
Does It Really Matter If Weed Is a Schedule 1 Drug?
Yes, for several reasons.
A schedule 1 drug can only be used for research approved by the federal government, and only one facility in America is allowed to grow weed for research. There are fewer restrictions as you move down the classification ladder.
But illegal is illegal, at least in the DEA’s eyes. A bigger issue in this era of legalization is banking and taxes. Most banks refuse to work with growers and dispensaries in legal states because of weed’s Schedule 1 status. Those businesses also aren’t allowed to deduct many legitimate expenses on their taxes because of the Schedule 1 issue — even though they’re operating legally in their home state.
Marijuana has been legalized, in some form, in well over two-thirds of the states. And the latest Pew Research poll found that 91% of American adults now believe it should be legalized nationwide, at least for medical use.  (60% say it should be legal for recreational use, too.)
That leads to an important question.
Can Marijuana Be Moved Out of Schedule 1?
That would seem like a small step to take, with the nation firmly in favor of full legalization. However, it would make a big difference to legal weed operations across the country.
Schedules have been changed in the past. The DEA moved some opioids from Schedule 3 to Schedule 2 a few years ago, due to the nation’s ongoing overdose epidemic. And Congress added GHB (the date rape drug) to the schedules in the early 2000s.
So it would be up to Congress to pass a law changing weed’s Schedule, or the DEA to do it unilaterally. Perhaps Congress will decide to do that, although they seemingly can’t decide to do much of anything.
The DEA can’t do it without a full review of marijuana’s safety and potential for abuse — and that’s a problem. There’s relatively-little scientific evidence for them to use, and none of it meets the agency’s existing requirements; they require large-scale, controlled clinical trials, which are virtually impossible to conduct with the Schedule 1 restrictions on pot.
There’s another issue, too. Some treaties with other countries require that the U.S. keep weed as a Schedule 1 or Schedule 2 drug. Any change would all have to be negotiated with treaty partners.
So for now, it’s a regulatory mess. Moving marijuana to Schedule 2 might provide some financial relief to existing businesses, but it appears there may still be a very long wait before even that small step can be taken.
With weed laws, nothing is as simple as it seems — or as simple as it seemingly should be.
When Was Marijuana Classified as a Schedule 1 Drug? FAQ
Q: Didn’t President Obama take unilateral action to stop federal weed prosecutions? Can’t a president just make weed legal?
A: Yes he did, but that’s apples and oranges. Obama told his Justice Department not to bring weed prosecutions (except for large-scale trafficking), but any future president could reverse those instructions. A president can’t make weed legal by Executive Order; that can only be done by Congress. And the tricky issues of DEA Schedules — and federal drug enforcement treaties — would still have to be navigated.
Q: Does having marijuana classified as Schedule 1 actually help anyone?
A: Not really. It’s more a matter of inertia built into the federal government, which makes it virtually impossible for common-sense changes to be implemented quickly.
Q: If weed was reclassified as Schedule 2 or lower, would that have any impact on what might happen if you’re arrested for using it?
A: Probably not. Right now only states are enforcing marijuana laws (at the user level, that is). If a future president orders the Justice Department to resume enforcement, the penalties would be independent of weed’s place on the DEA’s schedules.