A federal law known as the Controlled Substances Act sets cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning that it is considered to be a dangerous substance with no accepted medical value. By comparison, cocaine, meth, and hydrocodone are Schedule 2 drugs, meaning they are deemed less dangerous than cannabis under this law. In the 44 years since the Schedule 1 classification, there have been numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies suggesting both that cannabis is not dangerous and does have some medical benefits.
However, the Schedule 1 classification has essentially prevented funding for more high-quality scientific research on cannabis, especially studies that examine potential benefits. The Drug Enforcement Agency has repeatedly rejected or delayed scientists' requests for access to the federally-controlled supply of cannabis for research purposes.
This has created a paradox for cannabis research: Because cannabis has been deemed to be dangerous with no medical benefit, no one can legally study whether it is actually dangerous and/or has medical benefit. Essentially, the Schedule 1 listing is standing in the way of knowing the truth about cannabis. Such research, if it could ever be done, would be the basis for changing (or not changing) federal law and policy on cannabis.
That's why eyebrows were raised this week when former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder told PBS Frontline, "I certainly think it ought to be rescheduled. You know, we treat marijuana in the same way that we treat heroin now, and that clearly is not appropriate."
President Obama has declined to say whether he believes cannabis should be rescheduled, but he has said that rescheduling is a job for Congress. However, the law gives both the Attorney General and the Drug Enforcement Administration, which are federal offices that answer to the President, authority to change the scheduling of a drug.
Obama has not been shy about taking action when he perceives a need, using his executive authority to address high-profile issues such as illegal immigration and gun violence. On cannabis, Obama has declined to act.
When Obama was voted into office in 2008 after running on his platform of hope and change, many people in the country were elated not just at the symbolic value of the U.S. having elected its first black president, but at the prospect of real reform of some of America's most intractable problems. For example, the War on Drugs created wide racial disparities in drug-related arrests and sentences.
Although President Obama has signed legislation that ameliorates some of the sentencing bias with respect to cocaine-related crime, his inaction on cannabis scheduling has left many wondering why he has declined to take such a simple action that could create meaningful change in federal cannabis policy.