Controlled Substances Act Definition: Described for the Complete Rookie!

How and why marijuana became a controlled substance


Marijuana has not always been a federally illegal substance. In fact, Americans happily used weed legally up until the early part of the 20th century. Then, aided by racist propaganda against Mexican immigrants, the media began to depict cannabis as a deadly drug that caused users to become uncontrollably violent.

It didn’t take long for states to begin banning it. Massachusetts was first in 1911 and was followed by many more within the next 20 years. By the time the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 became law, few people cared that weed was effectively prohibited throughout the United States.

Thousands of arrests followed as law enforcement became keen to crack down. When white middle-class college students began using it en-masse in the 1960s, there was a protest against the Act. Timothy Leary took his protest all the way to the Supreme Court, and in 1969, the Court ruled the 1937 Act to be ‘unconstitutional.’ Finally, marijuana was free to the masses! Not quite.

Enter the Controlled Substances Act

It is incorrect to say that marijuana has been federally illegal since 1937. In fact, it was technically okay to sell and use it between May 19, 1969, and October 27, 1970. It was on the latter date that President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) which remains as the federal law that prohibits the sale, possession, or use of cannabis.

For the sake of accuracy, it is Title II of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. The CSA created five schedules, or classifications, with differing qualifications for a substance to be included in each one. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) decide upon the substances that are added to, or removed from, the list.

Officially, the CSA is the legal foundation of the U.S. Government’s ‘war on drugs.’ Its main purpose was to ensure that America complied with the requirements of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and the Convention on Psychotropic Substances which was signed in 1971.

These treaties also created a system for the classification of controlled substances in various schedules. In the U.S., that is the purview of the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). The DEA, which wasn’t established until after the CSA, in 1973, is tasked with implementing the Act’s regulations.

Controlled Substance Classification

All regulated substances are placed in one of five schedules, imaginatively titled Schedule I to Schedule V. Schedule I drugs are the most dangerous because they are classified as addictive with no medical value. Unbelievably, marijuana is a Schedule I drug despite studies showing that it is not addictive, plus thousands more which suggest it has therapeutic value. Dispensing pharmacies are not allowed to possess Schedule I drugs.

Here are the five schedules; I have included a sample of drugs that fall within each classification:

  • Schedule I: No accepted medical use and high potential for abuse. The list includes marijuana, heroin, LSD, MDMA, mescaline, and peyote.
  • Schedule II: Severely restricted medical use with high potential for abuse. Includes cocaine, fentanyl, methadone, morphine, and PCP.
  • Schedule III: Accepted medical use with a medium risk of addiction. Includes anabolic steroids, ketamine, Marinol, fast-acting barbiturates, and benzphetamine HCI.
  • Schedule IV: Accepted medical use with a low risk of addiction. Includes benzodiazepines, long-acting barbiturates, and tramadol.
  • Schedule V: Accepted medical use with minimal risk of abuse. Includes cough suppressants with small amounts of codeine, CBD, and anticonvulsants such as Lyrica.

Yes, angel dust, cocaine, and the deadly fentanyl are all deemed to be ‘lower’ risk drugs than cannabis! Even possession of any amount of a Schedule I substance is punishable under federal law.

There is something of a disconnect between state and federal law when it comes to drug classifications. At the state level, it is possible for residents to make changes by drafting an initiative and voting ‘yes’ to it at the ballot box. A significant number of states where marijuana is legal followed this process.

Yet the CSA’s process is a lot stricter and more complex. It is extremely difficult to remove a substance from its existing Schedule. Proving that a substance is not addictive is an incredibly tough task. Even the ‘easier’ tactic of proving that it has medical value requires DEA and FDA approval.

To achieve this, a drug must meet the following five conditions:

  1. The chemistry of the drug must be known and reproducible.
  2. There must be a large number of studies that attest to the drug’s safety.
  3. The studies which prove the effectiveness of the drug have to be well-controlled.
  4. Qualified experts must accept the drug.
  5. The scientific evidence proving its medical value needs to be easily available.

Can Marijuana Be Removed from Schedule I?

There have been calls for weed to at least be reclassified, if not removed from the CSA altogether, since the Act was introduced. In 1988, DEA Judge Francis L. Young reviewed the evidence and recommended that marijuana should be removed from Schedule I. He stated that the research was strong enough to support the medical value of cannabis.

Young also pointed out that it was almost impossible to overdose on marijuana. The judge even said that notions of medical marijuana encouraging recreational use were ‘specious.’ Alas, the relevant authorities didn’t listen, and weed remained alongside the likes of heroin and LSD.

One of the main problems associated with removing cannabis from the list of controlled substances is a lack of research. As it is a Schedule I drug, researchers find it extremely difficult to get the substance for testing in the first place! The weed they receive is grown at the University of Mississippi, which doesn’t resemble the pot you’ll find in a dispensary.

There is an even bigger problem to contend with, however. It is impossible for cannabis to meet the existing CSA conditions. It is incredibly hard to find two different marijuana leaf samples with identical chemical makeup because it is harvested from a natural plant. The chemical makeups of strains are different, so there are even more variations. As a result, the chemistry of cannabis is not reproducible.

Pro-marijuana members of Congress have attempted to introduce bills to reschedule weed within the CSA. To date, their efforts have gone without reward. To be fair, they have a mountain to climb given the political opposition to weed at the national level. During the 115th Congress (2017-2018), almost 50 cannabis-related bills were introduced.

The STATES Act would exempt marijuana businesses from the CSA as long as they were in states where the sale of weed is legal. House Resolution 2020 is an attempt to reclassify cannabis as a Schedule III substance. Cory Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act is by far the most ambitious as it aims to legalize marijuana across the United States.

Final Thoughts on the CSA

When the Controlled Substances Act was introduced in 1970, there was little or no research performed on marijuana. The nation still had the same hysterical reaction to the herb as it did during the 1930s Reefer Madness era. As such, it is somewhat understandable that weed was added as a Schedule I substance.

However, in the intervening years, there is no excuse to indulge in this level of ignorance, now that countless studies have shown the therapeutic potential of marijuana. The fact that weed is federally illegal makes it difficult to gain ample clinical data. The criteria for rescheduling also ensure that weed is unable to meet the demands of the CSA for rescheduling.

Public support for medical marijuana has swelled to the point where legislative rescheduling may be possible within the next few years. However, we see no evidence that the DEA or the FDA will reschedule it. Meanwhile, doctors prescribe opioids, despite knowing that these drugs kill up to 100 Americans every single day.