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Should Federal Law Classify Cannabis As One of the Nation’s Most Dangerous Drugs?

LaurenWhetzel1At the height of President Richard Nixon’s war against drugs in 1970, he urged Congress to pass the Controlled Substances Act to crack down on drug abuse across the United States.1 This law categorizes controlled substances into 5 schedule groups, which are determined by their medical acceptance, abuse potential, and ability to produce dependence.It also regulates the development and distribution of controlled substances, such as narcotics, stimulants, depressants, hallucinogens, anabolic steroids, and chemicals used in the illegal production of drugs. This law classifies cannabis (marijuana) as a Schedule I drug with a “high potential for abuse” and “no accepted medical use,” right next to deadly drugs such as heroin, LSD, and ecstasy.2 Meanwhile, oxycodone and methadone – which are among the most commonly abused prescription drugs and leading causes of opioid overdose deaths – are Schedule II drugs; thus implying that these drugs are less dangerous than marijuana.2


Should Federal Law Classify Cannabis As One of the Nation’s Most Dangerous Drugs?


The epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse continues to take a deadly toll in the United States.4 In fact, fatal overdoses involving drugs such as OxyContin and Vicodin have tripled over the past decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).4 Even more alarming is the fact that the United States consumes 80 percent of the world’s supply of prescription painkillers.5 Imagine how these ever increasing statistics would change if the federal government legalized cannabis, and reclassified it alongside prescription painkillers, to provide alternatives to pain management.

The first global study6 of illicit drug abuse, recently published in the Lancet, revealed that addictions to heroin and popular painkillers, like Vicodin and OxyContin, kill the most people and cause the greatest health burden to society; unlike illicit drugs such as cannabis. While critics of cannabis point out its potential health risks, research6,7 has shown that they are inferior when compared to those of opioids. While some cannabis users do in fact become addicted, or at least dependent on this drug, it is far less addictive and deadly than prescription opioids.6

In fact, CDC officials have come forward on several occasions to say that many people find themselves addicted to painkillers before they even realize it— often after taking the prescribed drugs to recover from surgery or treat chronic pain. The common major adverse health effects of cannabis includes dependence, psychotic disorders, and other mental disorders; but contributes very little to mortality.6

According to Bachhuber, et al,7 deaths from opioid overdoses have sharply declined in states where medical marijuana is now legal. This recent study7 examined medical marijuana laws and death certificate data in all 50 states between 1999 and 2010; 13 states had medical marijuana laws in place during that time period. Bachhuber7 wrote that “there was about a 25 percent lower rate of prescription painkiller overdose deaths on average after implementation of a medical marijuana law.” More specifically, states with medical marijuana laws in place in 2010, alone, experienced 1,700 fewer overdose deaths than would have been expected before cannabis laws were implemented, according to the states’ mortality statistics.8 A senior author of the study,7 public health expert Colleen Barry,8 wrote that as awareness of prescription drug addiction and overdose risk continues to spike, and “individuals with chronic pain and their medical providers may be opting to treat pain entirely or in part with medical marijuana.”

For the past decade, patients, advocates, medical providers and lawmakers have fought to have cannabis rescheduled to reflect its accepted medical value, low abuse potential, and relative safety. However, their efforts can only do so much, since drug rescheduling can only occur through Congressional action (legislation) or the DEA’s administrative rulemaking process (petition).1


Like all political debates, people continue to argue about the potential health benefits and dangers of cannabis usage; and constituents on both sides of the issue point to medical studies that reach different conclusions. Opponents of legalizing cannabis believe that it is a “gateway drug” to more dangerous drugs like heroin or cocaine. However, that is an ironic argument, since prescription painkillers – not cannabis – have been tagged as gateway drugs to heroin, and blamed for the rise in drug overdose deaths across the United States.5

At the end of the day, no matter which side of the debate people stand, there should be a mutual agreement that cannabis does not fit the description of a Schedule I drug. The focus of the marijuana debate should aim to reschedule the drug for medical purposes. With a Schedule I, II, or III classification, cannabis could be used and monitored responsibly to help relieve or manage the symptoms of patients with medical conditions such as cancer, human immunodeficiency virus, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, hepatitis C, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis.

This would be a win-win for patients, medical providers, and society as a whole in the United States, because patients would have more access to pain relief drugs without resorting to potentially-dependent and deadly prescription painkillers.


  1. Regulatory Information. Food and Drug Administration Web site.http://www.fda.gov/regulatoryinformation/legislation/ucm148726.htm#cntlsba. Updated July 9, 2012. Accessed July 9, 2014.
  2. Drug scheduling. Drug Enforcement Administration Web site. http://www.justice.gov/dea/druginfo/ds.shtml. Accessed July 12, 2014.
  3. US Code 801 Definitions. Cornell University Law School. http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/21/802. Accessed July 6, 2014.
  4. Drug Poisoning Deaths. CDC Web site. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/drug_poisoning/drug_poisoning_deaths_1999-2012.pdf. Published December 2, 2014. Accessed December 3, 2014.
  5. Prescription Drug Epidemic Testimony. American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians Web site. http://www.asipp.org/documents/testimony-fromexecutivecommittee-respondingtotheprescriptiondrugepidemic-strategiesforreduci.pdf. Published May 24, 2011. Accessed December 4, 2014.
  6. Degenhardt L, Hall W. Extent of illicit drug use and dependence, and their contribution to the global burden of disease. Lancet. 2012;379(9810);55-70.
  7. Bachhuber MA, Saloner B, Cunningham CO, Barry CL. Medical Cannabis Laws and Opioid Analgesic Overdose Mortality in the United States, 1999-2010. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(10):1668-1673.
  8. Young S. Medical marijuana laws may reduce painkiller overdoses. CNN Health Web site. http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/25/health/medical-marijuana-overdose-deaths/. Published August 26, 2014. Accessed December 4, 2014.

Lauren Whetzel is a public relations professional and graduate student in the Biomedical Writing program at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. Her interests in health and government issues stem from years of working as a health care reporter and government publicist in Washington, D.C., and Harrisburg, Pa. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Lauren earned her BA in communication studies from Thiel College.


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