Nine states will be voting on marijuana legalization measures next week. Arkansas, Florida, Montana, and North Dakota will be determining medical legalization. While recreational use is the focus in Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada. All of this despite the continued haphazard scheduling of cannabinoids under federal law.

Cannabinoids in Schedule I, II, and III

Even as states continue to either recognize medical benefits or legalize recreational use, federally there is no acceptable use of marijuana. After the DEA rejected yet another petition this past summer, cannabis remains on the USA’s Controlled Substances Act under Schedule I, as do THC and CBD.

However, Nabilone, a synthetic cannabinoid that mimics either THC or CBD depending on who’s asked, is listed under Schedule II. And capsules of THC (dronabinol) in sesame oil are under Schedule III. That’s three different schedules for cannabinoids. Three different decisions on medical use for the same family of drug.

The rules governing these schedules seem to be opinions. Opinions on likelihood of abuse, opinions on medical use, and opinions on safety of use. Obviously these are expert opinions, but they’re still subjective. For one thing, Schedule I drugs have no “currently accepted medical use” while Schedules II and III both do. So by maintaining the status quo they maintain Schrodinger’s THC — it has both medical use and no medical use at the same time. 

What if other plants that have medicinal properties were treated like the cannabis plant?

Willow bark tea, ASA, and Aspirin

Say you’ve got a minor headache. Bad enough that you want some relief instead of waiting it out. However, you have a hard time swallowing pills.

You head down to your natural food store to buy some willow bark tea. Unfortunately, you’re told it’s now regulated. People “abuse” it by drinking the tea even when they don’t have a headache. Since it’s been used for thousands of years there’s a lack of “scientific” research proving it works. And there’s no way to monitor it by a doctor or pharmacist. So no more willow bark tea for you. Or anyone.

Of course you next try the pharmacy. You look all over the pain relief aisles, searching for something similar to willow bark tea. But you can only find Aspirin bottles, synthesized ASA. You figure you can crush the pills and mix them into something edible, even though you’ve heard Aspirin can be really hard on your body. You pick up a bottle and head to the cashier.

When they ask if you found everything okay, you relate your troubles of finding something as gentle as willow bark tea. And the cashier tells you extracted salicin is available in sesame seed oil capsules directly from the pharmacist.

Cannabis Schedule I Catch-22

A ridiculous and silly possibility for salicylates. After all, willow bark tea is no more harmful than Aspirin or extracted salicin. But it’s apparently understandable from the point of view of the USA regulatory agencies, which keep THC, synthetic THC, and THC in oil in three different Schedules.

According to the HHS, because research is limited there are not enough safety studies or efficacy studies to reschedule. Because there are not enough studies overall there is not enough scientific evidence to reschedule. And because there is not enough scientific evidence there is not enough support from experts.

Further, there are no products approved by the FDA nor are products under review by the FDA. So the HHS states there is no accepted medical uses for marijuana.

Basically, because cannabis is under Schedule I, the FDA won’t approve it. Because the FDA won’t approve it, not enough scientists can or will study it. And because not enough scientists can or will study it, it remains that cannabis is under Schedule I.

Now obviously, a big difference between willow bark and cannabis is that people don’t tend to ingest willow bark recreationally. There’s no “high potential for abuse” for salicylates.

But the CSA manages to handle drugs that are actually abused more logically than they handle the cannabis question.

Coca leaves, Cocaine, and Coca-cola

Humans have been consuming coca leaves for thousands of years. The coca plant was domesticated long ago and continues to be raised and harvested, even where it’s illegal. Cocaine, of course, comes from coca leaves. And Coca-cola was made with it, at one time, as was coca wine.

Both coca and cocaine are now included in Schedule II. Coca-cola is now made with coca leaves that no longer contain cocaine.

It’s possible to argue that coca leaves could be scheduled even lower. In countries that produce coca, chewing leaves or drinking teas is both established and notably harmless, and its use is considered a habit not an addiction.

However, cocaine is extracted from the leaves, so coca needs to be scheduled. But even though coca has no recognized medical use in the USA they still aren’t in Schedule I. Together both coca and cocaine are treated as medically useful drugs with high potential for abuse in Schedule II. 

Cocaine is an occasionally useful topical anaesthetic, but it is a widely popular recreational drug with a much higher potential for abuse than marijuana. It could certainly be argued that, with the advent or discovery of every other anaesthetic, it has been made redundant. But there is enough call for its particular properties to be kept in medical use.

Much like the use of medical marijuana.  

Recreational Doesn’t Negate Medicinal

Why is a drug that kills people — that is used and abused and often cut with numerous other unknown and unregulated chemicals — considered by the USA to be less dangerous than a cannabis plant?

Of course marijuana is recreationally used way more than medicinally. But that recreational use doesn’t negate its medical uses. And those uses are already recognized by the regulatory agencies while scheduling its derivatives and synthetics. And yes, it’s a plant that is often smoked (and smoking is bad). But tobacco isn’t even scheduled and that’s not only massively addictive, its addictive substance is a poison.

There are a lot of different reasons for drug classification, regulation, and restriction. That a substance is complex and natural is not, however, a reason to schedule it with the most dangerous of drugs.

It’s not sensible, it’s not rational, it’s not useful … and cannabis listed under Schedule I is still holding back business and putting people behind bars.

That’s something to remember on November 8th.