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DEA decides not to loosen restrictions on marijuana, keeping it schedule 1 (with heroin)

After years of anticipation, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has decided whether it will remove marijuana from its harshest legal classification: Nope.

The decision means marijuana will remain schedule 1, a category that includes other drugs like heroin and LSD, and is ranked higher than schedule 2, where cocaine and meth remain.

Many advocates hoped marijuana would be rescheduled to schedule 2, particularly to unlock more research into the drug’s medical value. The DEA, however, said it would unlock more research through other means — specifically, by allowing more growing facilities for studies, undoing the University of Mississippi’s current monopoly status as the only federally legal pot grower.

The classification doesn’t mean the government thinks marijuana is more dangerous than cocaine or meth, or equally dangerous to heroin. It means that marijuana, like other schedule 1 drugs, is perceived by the federal government to have high potential for abuse and no medical value. Schedule 2 drugs, like cocaine, still have high potential for abuse, but they also have some acknowledged medical value.

It’s only once you get to schedules 3, 4, and 5 that a drug is deemed to have lower potential for abuse (like anabolic steroids and Xanax) — but these classifications also require that a drug has some acknowledged medical value.

Still, the decision denies a largely symbolic victory to marijuana legalization advocates. But it’s also a fairly obtuse decision — one rooted more in the federal government’s highly technical scheduling system than the question of whether marijuana really has medical value.

Marijuana’s schedule presents a bit of a Catch-22. But the DEA is trying to fix that.

Purple marijuana plants. Seth McConnell/Denver Post/Getty Images

This isn’t the first time the DEA refused to reschedule marijuana — and this time, it seems to have used the exact same reasoning it used several times over the past few decades: There’s not enough evidence that pot has medical value.

Remember: The key to changing a drug from schedule 1 to the other schedules is finding that it has medical value — not whether it has lower potential for abuse or non-dangerous uses. So if there isn’t enough evidence to show a drug has medical value by the DEA’s standards, a drug remains schedule 1.

So far, no studies have demonstrated the criteria that the federal government typically requires for medicines. Specifically, no studies have proved marijuana’s medical efficacy in controlled, large-scale clinical environments, nor have any studies established adequate safety protocols for marijuana. And marijuana’s full chemical structure has never been characterized and analyzed.

There have been some studies showing marijuana has medical benefits, particularly for pain and muscle stiffness. But these studies haven’t been large enough to meet the threshold the DEA and other federal agencies, such as the FDA, require to prove a drug has medical value — by proving its worth in controlled, large-scale clinical trials.

One reason there isn’t enough scientific evidence to change marijuana’s schedule 1 status might be, in fact, the drug’s schedule 1 status

But one reason there isn’t enough scientific evidence to change marijuana’s schedule 1 status might be, in fact, the drug’s schedule 1 status. The DEA restricts how much pot can go to research. To obtain legal marijuana supplies for studies, researchers must get their studies approved by HHS, the FDA, and the DEA — a costly, time-consuming process.

Changing marijuana’s schedule, in other words, is a bit of a Catch-22: There needs to be a certain level of scientific research that proves marijuana has medical value, but the federal government’s restrictions make it difficult to conduct that research.

To address those issues, the DEA hopes to allow much more research into pot in other ways. For one, it’s increased the amount of pot grown for research over the past few years, and it plans to continue doing so. Crucially, it also plans to let more people and facilities grow marijuana for studies — aside from University of Mississippi, the only federally legal grower right now.

That could significantly open up research access to pot — including potentially higher-quality marijuana and different strains of the drug, which the University of Mississippi doesn’t currently meet demands for. But the effects of the changes remain to be seen.

Rescheduling marijuana wouldn’t have much practical effect, but it would be a big symbolic win for advocates

Marijuana. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

For legalization advocates, the DEA’s decision to not reschedule marijuana comes as a big symbolic loss. But the possible policy implications of rescheduling seem fairly small.

Drug policy experts, such as Mark Kleiman, have long said that rescheduling marijuana to schedule 2 — as advocates hoped the DEA would do this time around — wouldn’t have much of an effect. Schedule 2 substances typically require a prescription to be distributed, and the state-legal marijuana dispensaries and retail outlets don’t work through traditional prescriptions (they distribute "recommendations" for medical marijuana), so even rescheduling may not open up access. (Cocaine and meth are schedule 2, and they’re definitely not easily legally available, after all.)

Still, if the federal government acknowledged pot’s medical value through a schedule 2 classification, advocates hoped it would make federal agencies far more receptive to paying for and approving medical research into pot. But the DEA hopes its other steps will unlock far more research instead.

Cocaine and meth are schedule 2, and they’re definitely not easily legally available

There would be some effects on policy, such as allowing state-legal marijuana businesses to deduct certain taxes, if marijuana was reclassified to schedule 3 or lower. But that’s extremely unlikely: Schedule 3 and lower drugs need to have some medical value and not meet criteria for "high potential for abuse." Since marijuana is widely used recreationally, it’s a lock-in for "high potential for abuse," keeping it at schedule 1 or 2. And putting pot lower than schedule 1 or 2 could also violate international treaties.

One way around this is Congress could unschedule or reschedule marijuana by itself. But again, that’s unlikely.

The real victory from rescheduling, then, would largely be symbolic. At a time when most Americans support legalizing marijuana, and more states are legalizing the drug, a federal decision to potentially relax its restrictions on marijuana would validate that the country really is moving in a direction where pot will be more accessible and legal.

But the DEA’s decision denied that symbolic victory, leaving it to the next review — in as long as many more years — to see if anything changes.