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Looser restrictions on marijuana are very likely coming — just not this week

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) won’t reschedule marijuana after all, dashing a lot of pot legalization advocates’ hopes on Wednesday. But in all the talk about marijuana’s schedule and the disappointment people are feeling, one thing is getting lost: The DEA made other changes that could put marijuana on an inevitable path toward rescheduling — and therefore easing restrictions on it.

First, a clarification. There are a lot of misconceptions about the scheduling system — most notably that it ranks drugs by their danger and criminalizes them. The scheduling system does not strictly do either, instead acting as a highly technical bureaucratic process that dictates a drug’s potential for abuse — mainly if it’s recreationally used — and medical value for regulatory purposes. Separate aspects of laws at both the state and federal level criminalize drugs. (For more on all of that, read my explainer on the scheduling system.)

So marijuana’s schedule 1 status is a result of the DEA deeming that cannabis has “high potential for abuse” — since it’s widely used recreationally — and no medical value. It’s the latter that’s particularly important: If the DEA decided marijuana has some medical value, it could move the drug to schedule 2 (or 3, 4, 5 — although those aren’t likely).

To that end, the DEA took a significant regulatory step that could have a lot of impact on pot’s eventual schedule — specifically, it promised to eliminate the University of Mississippi’s current monopoly on growing pot for research purposes.

That’s huge news. One of the biggest hindrances to medical marijuana research, which is needed to prove the drug has medical value, is this monopoly. Researchers have long complained that the University of Mississippi can’t meet demand for quantity, quality, and different strains of the drug. By potentially allowing more competition, the DEA could unlock more research.

This move is key to getting marijuana rescheduled in the future. The big question for pot’s classification is not whether it has any medical value at all. We already know it does: Studies have found it effective for treating pain and muscle stiffness — to the point that pot, a relatively safe drug that doesn’t cause deadly overdoses, could substitute opioid painkillers, which are highly addictive and kill thousands of Americans every year.

The big question, instead, is whether the evidence for medical marijuana passes a certain threshold that federal agencies, like the DEA and FDA, expect of medicines. Particularly, marijuana’s medical ability must be proven in large-scale, clinical trials. None of the studies done on marijuana so far have been on this scale.

The biggest hindrance to these trials has long been the difficulty researchers have with accessing pot for studies. And, again, one big hurdle is the University of Mississippi monopoly and the limits it puts on how much marijuana is grown, the quality of pot, and the strains that are available.

By making it so those hurdles could soon go away, the DEA is potentially allowing much more research on pot — including, eventually, large-scale clinical trials. Through that process, it may only be a matter of years until marijuana’s acknowledged medical value reaches the necessary threshold to become schedule 2.