The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) admits that no one has ever died from a marijuana overdose but still won’t remove the substance from its list of Schedule I drugs — the same classification as heroin.
For context, roughly 2,200 people die from alcohol poisoning each year in the United States — six per day.
Despite its relative safety, marijuana remains one of the most strictly prohibited drugs in the country under federal law, even as increasing numbers of states have moved toward legalization. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and DEA classify it as a Schedule I substance, meaning there’s a “high potential for abuse,” no currently “accepted medical use in treatment” and “a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.”
Michele Leonhart, the former head of the DEA, infamously refused to say whether heroin is worse than marijuana for someone’s health while testifying before Congress in June 2012. She would dodge the question by simply saying, “I believe all illegal drugs are bad.”
For the record, heroin is far more harmful than marijuana. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that overdose deaths from heroin in the U.S. have more than quadrupled since 2010 — killing nearly 13,000 in 2015. Opioid addiction is by some accounts the country’s most urgent public health crisis.
Schedule I drug
Acting DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg wrote a letter rejecting petitions for rescheduling marijuana in August 2016. In the letter, he conceded that marijuana is “less dangerous than some substances in other schedules” and that this “strikes some people as odd.” (It does strike many as odd that cocaine, for instance, is a Schedule II substance because of its potential as a topical anesthetic.)
But Rosenberg said the criteria for pot’s inclusion in Schedule I is not its “relative danger.”
“In that sense, drug scheduling is unlike the Saffir-Simpson scale or the Richter scale,” Rosenberg wrote. “Movement up those two scales indicates increasing severity and damage (for hurricanes and earthquakes, respectively); not so with drug scheduling. It is best not to think of drug scheduling as an escalating ‘danger’ scale – rather, specific statutory criteria (based on medical and scientific evidence) determine into which schedule a substance is placed.”
A spokesperson for DEA told Yahoo News that “judicial precedent” established a five-part test to determine whether marijuana has a “currently accepted medical use in treatment,” serving as a differentiating factor between Schedule I and II.
The five parts are as follows: the drug’s chemistry is known and reproducible, there are adequate safety studies, there are adequate and well-controlled studies proving efficacy, the drug is accepted by qualified experts and the scientific evidence is widely available.
Legal medical marijuana’s relationship to the opioid epidemic
As attitudes toward marijuana change in the U.S., the backlash to its strict classification at the federal level is growing. Critics of current marijuana laws argue that the pharmaceutical industry’s greed and government bureaucracy have undermined research that would allow the substance to help fight the opioid epidemic.