By David Nathan and Paul Armentano
Our nation controls potentially dangerous drugs in a variety of ways, either through direct regulation, as with alcohol and tobacco, or by placing them on particular lists, also called schedules.
The government’s “Schedule I” designation is the most restrictive classification for controlled substances, reserved for the most dangerous, most addictive drugs with no medical value. Heroin and PCP are Schedule I drugs, and despite an overwhelming body of scientific evidence supporting its medical value and safety, so is marijuana.
Marijuana’s classification as a Schedule I drug is the result of politics and ignorance rather than science. In the coming weeks and months, New Jersey has a historic opportunity to become one of the first states to actively “deschedule” this oft-maligned and misunderstood plant.
Last year, Judge Michael Guadagno ruled that the state must reconsider the Schedule I status of cannabis in New Jersey. This decision was referred to the Division of Consumer Affairs (DCA), which oversees the New Jersey Drug Control Unit (DCU). The DCA and DCU have decision-making authority over the scheduling of drugs in New Jersey, and they are now free to reschedule or even deschedule marijuana.
Against this backdrop, the DCA announced recently that a series of hearings will take place over the coming weeks so that officials may consider public comments about changing the regulatory status of medical marijuana in New Jersey. Rather than placing marijuana in a less restrictive category under the DCU, we believe a better solution is to deschedule it entirely.
When the U.S. Supreme Court declared the “Reefer Madness”-era law against marijuana to be unconstitutional in 1969, the federal government was faced with a choice between legalization or another means of continuing the drug’s prohibition. President Richard Nixon appointed the Shafer Commission to study the health effects of marijuana and recommend a course of action.
To the surprise of many, this blue-ribbon commission concluded that cannabis should not be included in the prohibitive Schedule I category, but rather should be regulated like alcohol, which is not scheduled at all. The commission’s findings were ultimately rejected by the federal government, which was eager to include marijuana in its nascent “war on drugs.”
Following the reconstituted prohibition of marijuana at the federal level in 1970, the state of New Jersey followed suit. Yet today, the science is clearer than ever that cannabis — like alcohol and tobacco — is best controlled when it is regulated rather than criminally prohibited.
According to the Controlled Substances Act, a Schedule I drug must meet all of three specific criteria. It must have “a high potential for abuse,” “no currently accepted medical use,” and “a lack of accepted safety.” By this definition, marijuana’s inclusion in that category is an insult to any rational person.
Cannabis clearly does not share the high abuse potential associated with other Schedule I substances like heroin, or even other legal recreational substances. According to a comprehensive review by the National Academy of Sciences, cannabis’s dependence liability is similar to that of caffeine (9 percent), and it is far lower than the dependence associated with other substances like alcohol (15 percent) and tobacco (32 percent).
The science is also clear that cannabis possesses an acceptable and well-understood safety profile. Unlike most drugs and even some foods (such as bananas, coffee and kombucha), cannabis possesses no known risk of lethal overdose. According to a World Health Organization review, the acute toxicity of cannabis is vanishingly low: “There are no confirmed cases of human deaths from cannabis poisoning in the world medical literature.”
Further, there exist numerous FDA-approved trials assessing the safety and efficacy of cannabis in various patient populations. A recent scientific review of these trials concludes: “Based on evidence currently available the Schedule I classification is not tenable. It is not accurate that cannabis has no medical value, or that information on safety is lacking.
Finally, it is simultaneously absurd and tragic to conclude that cannabis “has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.”
In reality, most states – including New Jersey – recognize the therapeutic use of cannabis by statute. Some of these laws have been in existence for nearly two decades, and societal support has only increased. It is now estimated that over 1.2 million Americans are using cannabis as a legal medicine under state law, yet current restrictions prevent access to millions more.
Rather than continuing to keep cannabis misplaced in Schedule I, or moving it to another unnecessarily restrictive schedule – a better option would be to deschedule it completely and regulate its commercial production and retail sale in a manner similar to alcohol or tobacco. Such regulation has been advocated by Gov. Phil Murphy, and we request the DCA to respect scientific evidence and make New Jersey among the first U.S, states to deschedule marijuana.
David Nathan is the Princeton-based founder and board president of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, which is a member of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform‘s steering committee. He is a distinguished fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and clinical associate professor of Psychiatry at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
Paul Armentano is the deputy director of NORML — the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and he is the co-author of the book, “Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?” (Chelsea Green, 2013).