Why Cannabis is a Schedule I Controlled Substance

In 1970, Congress enacted the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act (CDAPC) in an effort to prevent drug abuse, provide treatment and rehabilitation to drug users, and to strengthen law enforcement’s authority in drug related offenses. As part of the CDAPC, the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), created five schedules of controlled substances, listed according to their danger, their potential for abuse and addiction, and whether they poses legitimate medical value. 

Schedule I controlled substances, which include heroin and LSD among others, are considered to be the most dangerous with, “potentially severe psychological and physical dependence.” A Schedule I controlled substance has a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and is not safe to use, even under medical supervision. 

The CDAPC temporarily placed marijuana under Schedule I, while a commission was created to evaluate the efficacy of existing marijuana laws, the extent of marijuana use, marijuana’s pharmacology, impact on crime, and influence as a gateway drug. As part of its findings, the Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse recommended the decriminalization of possession of marijuana for personal use on both the state and federal levels. The Commission concluded that:

The 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 Commission’s findings were in stark contrast to President Nixon’s strongly held and misguided beliefs on marijuana. Well before the completion of the report, Nixon had already begun to outline his marijuana policies. In a conversation with his Chief of Staff, Nixon made his position clear, “I want a Goddamn strong statement on marijuana. Can I get that out of this sonofabitching, uh, Domestic Council? I mean one on marijuana that just tears the ass out of them… I want to hit it, against legalizing and all that sort of thing.” Nixon ensured marijuana received the same treatment as other more addictive and dangerous substances, resulting in marijuana being classified as a Schedule I controlled substance. Nixon also pushed forward his comprehensive drug enforcement agenda announcing, “an all out global war on the drug menace,” laying the groundwork for the DEA as we know it today.

Forty years later, Nixon’s drug policies dictate the Federal government’s treatment of marijuana. Unjust criminal prosecution, unfair tax treatment, denial of banking services, restrictions on research, and a total misalignment between state and federal government policies are just a few of the issues created by marijuana’s classification as a Schedule I controlled substance. There is a cloud of confusion surrounding marijuana’s place in American society that reaches from the individual, to local, state, and federal government agencies.