Cannabis Panic: Controlled Substances Act

Controlled Substances Act

What is the Controlled Substances Act, and what does it have to do with the legal use of marijuana in the US?

As the legalization of marijuana use in some form has passed in 29 states and the District of Columbia, it is safe to say that the legal use of cannabis has come a long way socially, as well as politically. Although a sizeable amount of the general public has come to accept the usage of pot, there is still a significant misconception of its potential.

Currently, medical and recreational use of cannabis is legal only at the state level. However, it is mostly illegal at the federal level, creating tension and confusion for its advocates and opponents. The disconnect stems from the Controlled Substances Act that enlists marijuana as a restrictive drug. How did that come to be? And why does that matter?

The blurred lines of marijuana legality are something that you should be aware of because where you use pot and how you use it may be different from one state to the next. We are here to discuss some of the implications of the Controlled Substances Act to better educate you about where marijuana use stands today.

What is the Controlled Substances Act?

In 1970, the Congress of the United States passed the Federal Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act into legislation, effective May 1st, 1971. (1) The federal law contains 3 titles:

  1. Title I – has to do with programs available for addicts and drug abusers who require rehabilitation and how they can be established.
  2. Title II – is the Controlled Substances Act, and it has to do with the manufacturing and distribution of narcotics, stimulants, hallucinogens, and other controlled substances.
  3. Title III – deals with the importing and exporting of controlled substances. It overlooks the criminalization, penalties, criminal forfeiture, and laws around all controlled substances.

Focusing on Title II, the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) is a federal drug policy and foundation that protects consumers against the country’s problem with drug abuse. It serves as the groundwork concerning public health by using a consolidated number of laws that regulate the distribution and production of controlled substances. (2)

These consolidated number of laws include prohibitions against unlawful possession that is deemed as dangerous, dependence-forming, and otherwise detrimental to use without an authorized prescription. The CSA has a categorization of controlled drugs, based on the drugs’ medical benefits, as well as their potential for addiction and abuse.

Controlled substances, narcotics, depressants, hallucinogens, and stimulants, such as marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, and other prescription and street drugs are categorized into 5 different “schedules,” which we will discuss further in detail later on. (3)

Regulated Substances Under Existing Federal Law

So, how are these categories restricted at the federal level?

The CSA holds a classification of 5 schedules of regulated substances based on their harmfulness, potential for dependence and addiction, and its medical benefits. According to the act, certain considerations have to be in place to determine where the drug is to be classified under control and regulation. Here are some of those factors (4):

  1. Is there a history and pattern of abuse for this drug?
  2. Are there are any public health risks?
  3. How long, how life-threatening, and how broad of a range is the dependence?
  4. Is the dependence psychological or physiological?
  5. What is the actual and relative potential for abuse?
  6. Is there any known scientific knowledge for the drug and its chemical effect?

Restricted Access

As far as who can be registered to handle controlled substances, the CSA restricts access primarily to manufacturing companies, distributors, and dispensaries. Every drug manufacturer, dispenser, and distributor in the US must register with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), with the goal to improve the handling and production of all controlled substances.

Once a controlled substance is registered, the DEA can then distribute the contents in an accountable manner, having traceability from the initial manufacturing process all the way to the final distribution to the patient.

At this time, pharmacies that dispense a controlled substance can register for 3 years. In total, there are currently more than one million wholesale and retail registrants, according to the DEA. (5) The only exceptions for those who can legally handle the controlled substances under federal requirements are manufacturers’ representatives who have access to samples.

Drug Classifications Based Upon Their Abuse

Controlled substances are defined as any drugs or medications that have the potential to be abused by its users, or it can make users dependent on them. Under the CSA, drugs are classified based on their abuse potential, safety, and medical application into the following 5 categories of schedules (6):

Schedule I

The Schedule I substances are described as having the following: high potential for abuse, currently not an acceptable medical treatment in the USA, and lacking in scientific and medical safety when used. Schedule I substances are not subject to be prescribed by any medical professionals.

Currently, the CSA deems the distribution of Schedule I substances as a federal crime, and offenders are subject to being convicted of trafficking, which can quickly land them a life sentence, depending on the quantity sold.

Marijuana and its cannabinoids are listed as a Schedule I substance, and although states such as Colorado, Washington, California, and Oregon have motioned for the legal use of marijuana both medicinally and recreationally, that is not to say that users won’t be prosecuted under federal law.

Other well-known Schedule I substances include heroin, LSD, and MDMA.

Schedule II

Drugs and controlled substances within Schedule II of the CSA are those with the following findings: drugs or materials with a high potential for abuse, controlled substances that have currently accepted medical use for treatment in the US (even if there are severe restrictions), and potentially critical psychological and physical dependence when abused.

No controlled substances within Schedule II may be dispensed without a prescription. As well, no order of any Schedule II substances can be refilled under any circumstances. Any offenses are subject to substantial penalties under this schedule.

Schedule II drugs and controlled substances included in this classification are amphetamine, cocaine, fentanyl, morphine, opium, and PCP.

Schedule III

Schedule III substances are classified with the following findings: a potential for abuse that is less than the materials in Schedules I and II, the drugs are currently accepted for medical use in the US, and they have the potential to lead to moderate to mild dependence both physically and psychologically.

Drugs and substances in Schedule III cannot be given to a user without a prescription, and they cannot be refilled more than 6 months after the initial order or refilled more than 5 times after the prescription date unless renewed by the medical practitioner.

A few examples of Schedule III substances include semi-synthetic opioids, anabolic steroids, and barbiturates like Androderm and Amobarbital.

Schedule IV

Substances and drugs in the Schedule IV category have a low potential for abuse relative to Schedule III; they are currently accepted for medical use in the US, and they may lead to limited dependence psychologically and physically, compared to the substances in Schedule III.

Control of Schedule IV drugs requires that refills of up to 5 times are allowed within a 6 month period, and it can be done by the authorization of the prescription itself or by a call-in to the medical practitioner.

Some examples of Schedule IV drugs include Xanax, Valium, Ativan, and Ambien.

Schedule V

Relative to Schedule IV, drugs and substances in Schedule V have the minimal potential for dependence and abuse with acceptance as a medical treatment in the US.

Schedule V substances include cough suppressants and anticonvulsants like Lyrica.

Not Controlled

The substance or drug is not subject to the Controlled Substances Act.

Evolution of the Issue of Marijuana Legalization

Marijuana laws have long been disputed because of the political influence involved in legalizing the use of pot. The very first regulation of marijuana came about in 1937 when the federal government introduced the Marijuana Tax Act. The act was put in place to tax and regulate the drug, rather than prohibit it altogether.

By the year 1952, stiffer restrictions and mandatory sentencing for offenses in marijuana sales and possession came to be, and marijuana was virtually outlawed.

In 1970, Congress passed the new Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act which birthed the Controlled Substances Act, which still stands today. Within this Act, marijuana and cannabis were categorized as a part of the most limited schedules that deemed the substance to have no valid medical uses and a high potential for dependence and abuse. A portion of this categorization stems from Richard Nixon’s war on drugs campaigns. Thus, cannabis was scheduled along with substances like heroin and LSD, even though medical, scientific, and legal opinion proved otherwise.

By 1972, an appeal was made to recommend the removal of marijuana from Schedule I, as well as the decriminalization of cannabis products. However, the appeal was rejected, and the designation of a Schedule 1 substance made it impossible to further any medical research on the drug to prove otherwise. The restricted access to cannabis made it hard for the scientific community to test marijuana’s therapeutic usefulness.

Since then, many local lobbyists and activist groups have come to support and initiate state interest in medical marijuana. As such, presently 29 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medicinal marijuana, 8 of which have authorized the recreational use of marijuana. (7) Given this new legal stance, cannabis users can now freely acquire a physician-ordered prescription of medicinal marijuana to alleviate their pain and ailments.

Considerations to move marijuana from Schedule I

Possession of marijuana is still a punishable act at the federal level due to its place as a Schedule I controlled substance. Multiple appeals to the DEA to move marijuana and cannabis use to a Schedule II or lower schedule are currently either in progress or have been ostensibly denied at the federal level.

Advocates of marijuana legalization argue that cannabis does not actually fit into the three statutory criteria for Schedule I controlled substances. It does not have the same abuse profile as other Schedule I substances, such as cocaine and heroin. THC in marijuana does not have the same dangerous properties and toxicity, as well as the corresponding dependence potential, as cocaine and heroin.

Although there is potential harm to smoking marijuana, advocates have also argued that there are benefits through other means of ingestion that are readily available. Ingestion options include vaporizers, cannabinoid oils, and edibles.

Overall, proponents for marijuana legalization affirms the need for rescheduling the drug due to the potential benefits for patients with long-term illnesses. Also, if cannabis were to remain in the Schedule I categorization, further research and medical acceptance would be limited to nonexistent without the support at the federal level.

Arguments for marijuana to remain in Schedule I

Based on the history of the Controlled Substances Act, for cannabis to be moved into a Schedule II or lower categorization, those against rescheduling have publicized the following criteria and requirements for consideration:

  1. Does marijuana have a known and reproducible drug chemistry?
  2. Does marijuana have adequate safety studies?
  3. Are there adequate and controlled studies showing marijuana’s efficacy?
  4. Are marijuana’s therapeutic benefits accepted by qualified experts?
  5. Is scientific data available for scrutiny?

In determining whether cannabis is accepted for medical use, the DEA has concluded that cannabis does not meet all of the above criteria. The DEA decided that, even if marijuana has a low potential for abuse, it cannot be rescheduled due to its lack of empirical evidence for medical acceptance in the US.

Others against rescheduling also argue that physical dependence and how toxic a controlled substance may be are not the only influences to determine its abuse potential. They suggest that psychological reliance should be taken into consideration, especially when users are willing to risk their careers, relationships, and education to use cannabis.


Support has been on the rise steadily in the last couple of decades. However, the road to decriminalization and full marijuana legalization will not come about until more careful scientific research and substantial medical trials can prove its benefits. What are your opinions for or against the rescheduling of cannabis products?

Frequently Asked Questions

According to the Controlled Substances Act, what is a Schedule I drug? Why is marijuana labeled as Schedule I?

Schedule I drugs are defined by the following required findings:

  1. The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse.
  2. The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatments in the United States.
  3. There is a lack of accepted safety for the use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.

Marijuana is labeled as a Schedule I drug due to its potential for psychological dependence, as well as the lack of scientific findings for its medical use in the United States.

Why was the Controlled Substances Act enacted?

The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 was enacted as a replacement for the Marijuana Tax Act. In response to a Supreme Court ruling, which held the Marijuana Tax Act as unconstitutional and a violation of the Fifth Amendment, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act within the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Prevention Act of 1970, which abolished the Marijuana Tax Act.

If alcohol and tobacco are drugs that have a potential for abuse and addiction, why aren’t they in a schedule of the Controlled Substances Act?

Tobacco and alcohol have been in use for well over a couple hundred years. As such, they were commonplace before any government sanctions and control were put in place to limit their use. There are a few theories behind why marijuana is in Schedule I restricted access while alcohol and tobacco are not in any schedules at all, but primarily it is thought to be too broad of a social norm and too widespread to now criminalize its use and distribution.

If marijuana becomes a Schedule 2 drug, how will that affect smaller dispensaries?

Many in the marijuana industry are concerned that if marijuana were to be bumped down to a Schedule II substance, the burden to maintain compliance with the FDA regulations might bankrupt many small dispensaries. Currently, because cannabis is a Schedule I drug, it is only under the jurisdictions of the DEA. If it were ever to be rescheduled as a Schedule II controlled substance, it is subject to all of the FDA’s laws and regulations to manage its manufacturing, distributions, sales, and use.

Why is marijuana a Schedule I substance when there is no proof of any deaths related to its use?

The psychological addiction alone calls for the DEA to question the potential for abuse for long-term users. It does not matter what the toxicity level is; only a controlled substances’ potential for abuse, medical usability, and potential for dependence matter.

What are the benefits of the Controlled Substances Act?

The CSA is beneficial in regulating and holding accountability to manufacturers, distributors, and users of controlled substances that can potentially be harmful to society as a whole. Without it, other arbitrary laws, such as the Marijuana Tax Act, may still be in effect.

What is the likelihood that the judiciary will ever rule that marijuana does not meet the criteria to remain a Schedule I controlled substance?

According to some, the judiciary ruling that marijuana does not meet the criteria to remain a Schedule I controlled substance will do little to nothing to move the legalization of marijuana forward. It will not alleviate any federal controls, nor will it make cannabis more accessible for clinical studies.

The CSA classifies drugs into schedules, Schedules I-V. Are there prescription-required drugs which are not scheduled?

Drugs that are not classified by the DEA do not fall under the 5 schedules of the CSA. Any prescription drugs that are not addictive and have medical use, such as blood pressure and some depression medication, are not under CSA classifications.

Why did the US government decide to ban specific drug use, and what makes it constitutional on a federal level?

In Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, Congress is granted power to prohibit and ban drugs for the general welfare of its people. Lawmakers and courts alike agree that their decision to ban particular drug use is ultimately for the betterment of public safety, regardless of whether or not it is actually constitutional on a federal level.

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