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Marijuana could soon be downgraded from a Schedule 1 drug

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The federal government may soon change how marijuana is regulated. This week the Drug Enforcement Administration kicked off a review of whether marijuana should remain a strictly controlled substance. As NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin reports, one major effect of this change would be on research.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Professor R. Lorraine Collins directs the University at Buffalo SUNY's Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research Center. When she wants to study something about marijuana...

R LORRAINE COLLINS: I, as a researcher, cannot go to a store and buy cannabis and use it in my research.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Instead, she has to get some grown and processed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of NIH. This is inconvenient. It also means that the marijuana that people in many places can just walk into a store and buy isn't being studied.

COLLINS: On a retail level, you can get cannabis products that have pretty high levels of THC. When you get cannabis products from National Institute on Drug Abuse, the THC content is much lower.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Cannabis researchers also have to go through approval from three different federal agencies, keep the drug in very safe, locked conditions. It's a lot.

COLLINS: With all the constraints on studying it, you ask a question, and we probably need to find out more.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Like, how does the drug move through the body? How do different doses affect different biological processes?

COLLINS: The effects of different modes of administration - are you vaping, smoking, eating gummies and so forth?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Last year President Biden asked the federal health agencies to evaluate whether marijuana should stay so highly regulated. Right now it's a Schedule 1 drug, the highest level of control, along with LSD, heroin and ecstasy. That means it has a high potential for abuse and no medical uses. On Tuesday, a top health official sent a letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration reportedly recommending that marijuana be downgraded to a Schedule 3 substance, along with ketamine and testosterone.

ROBERT MIKOS: That would be fairly momentous.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Rob Mikos is a professor at Vanderbilt University Law School. He says according to DEA's definitions, drugs on any level lower than Schedule 1 have accepted medical uses.

MIKOS: This would be the first time in, you know, 50 years that the federal government would be acknowledging that there's some medical utility to this drug.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Mikos says that would close the gap between the federal position on the drug and the states'. Medical marijuana is currently legal in 38 states and D.C. Now, none of this is a done deal. The ball is in DEA's court to review the health agency's recommendation and decide what to do next, all of which, Mikos says, could take years. Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIC LAWRY SONG, "SLOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.
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