The DEA just wrote a letter to Congress about marijuana. It's a big deal.

What might change if the DEA 'reschedules' marijuana.

The way state governments treat marijuana has changed a lot over the past decade.

In fact, states with more relaxed marijuana laws now outnumber states with stricter policies. In many states, governments have decriminalized marijuana, legalized the use of the compounds in marijuana for medical purposes, and even legalized weed altogether.

This gives a pretty good look at which states have decriminalized and legalized marijuana, or passed medical marijuana laws. Map from April 2016 via NORML, used with permission.


If you just look at our drug laws on the federal (not the state) level, you won’t see those changes.

According to the federal government, marijuana is still completely illegal. The Drug Enforcement Agency even categorizes marijuana as a Schedule I drug, part of the group of controlled substances that the DEA deems most dangerous.

But the DEA just sent a letter to Congress suggesting that the winds of change are blowing.

Lawmakers and activist groups have been asking the DEA to assign marijuana to a different schedule group for a while, and according to the new letter, they're about to act on that request.

"[The] DEA understands the widespread interest in the prompt resolution of these petitions and hopes to release its determination in the first half of 2016," the letter stamped April 4, 2016, reads.

Something tells me this plant isn't as dangerous as the DEA thinks it is. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

"But ... wait," you may be thinking. "We're in the first half of 2016." If a federal change happens, it's happening soon. Here's what you need to know about what the new rules could mean:

A lot of people disagree with drug scheduling because it seems pretty random.

Back in the 1970s, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, which created five classifications for drugs based on their potential for abuse, medical usefulness, and potential safety. According to the DEA, drugs that belong in Schedule I are the ones you definitely don't want to mess with. Schedule I substances supposedly have a high potential for abuse, no "currently accepted medical use," and are generally unsafe.

But here's the big problem: Lots of people disagree with the way the DEA and the FDA scheduled drugs in the '70s. Heroin, which is in Schedule I, was behind more than 17,000 fatal overdoses last year while marijuana hasn't caused a single fatal overdose in, well, recorded history. However, they're both in the same scheduling category.

Also, given that doctors in many states now prescribe cannabis and its chemical compounds to treat conditions like depression, arthritis, and epilepsy, there are plenty of reasons to take marijuana off the mega danger zone list.

Why does rescheduling matter that much?

One word: research.

It's really, really, really, REALLY hard to research marijuana if you're a scientist in the United States because the government heavily restricts research on Schedule I drugs. It's kind of a catch-22: We don't have many clinical trials involving marijuana, so we have limited knowledge about its medical uses and abuse potential, and it stays in Schedule I.

But according to the letter, "We [the DEA] support research on marijuana and its components that complies with applicable laws and regulations to advance our understanding about the health risks and potential therapeutic benefits of medications using marijuana or its components or derivatives."

Bottom line, rescheduling marijuana means that we would know a lot more about that little green plant, what it does, and how to use it safely. Which is important, since people in lots of states have started using the substance more freely in recent years.

Rescheduling marijuana could also mean big changes for our criminal justice system, too.

Photo via A7nubis/Wikimedia Commons.

Even if the DEA reschedules marijuana, that doesn't mean the government is going to fully decriminalize it any time soon. Thousands of people (and disproportionately people of color) are arrested for marijuana possession each year — often outpacing arrests for violent crimes.

Rescheduling could also put us closer to the FDA approving marijuana as a "safe and effective drug" with legal uses, though. Ultimately, criminal justice reform is going to take some time ... and a lot more cooperation from Congress. But this is a good start.

No matter what happens with the schedule, though, this conversation is important for a lot of reasons.

The DEA might end up keeping marijuana in the category of drugs that are even more dangerous than cocaine, meth, and steroids, but it's important that they're at least having real, nuanced discussions about cannabis. This whole thing proves that we’re moving forward, which is a good progress by any standard.

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