The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has a decision to make, and the fate of marijuana hangs in the balance.
Currently, marijuana is classified as a "Schedule I" drug. Schedules are categories created with the passing of the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. That act made the DEA and the Food and Drug Administration responsible for evaluating individual drugs and placing them in different categories based on criteria like medical applications, the potential for physical dependency and abuse potential.
Marijuana has long been in the top -- or most severe -- category, alongside "hard" drugs like heroin, cocaine, MDMA (ecstasy) and mescaline. Schedule I drugs have a high potential for abuse and "no currently accepted medical treatment use in the U.S.," according to the DEA's classification system.
Advocates have been arguing for years that marijuana doesn't belong in that category, a position echoed by researchers. Scientists have long complained about how difficult it is to get government approval to study marijuana as a medical treatment and its effects because of its scheduling.
With several states legalizing marijuana for recreational use, and many other decriminalizing the drug or approving medicinal use, advocates have pushed hard for the DEA and FDA to reconsider how marijuana is categorized.
Earlier in 2016, the DEA told lawmakers it would revisit the issue and make a recommendation on whether to reschedule the drug within the first half of 2016, according to The Cannabist. When that self-imposed deadline passed, DEA officials said they're still working on a formal analysis.
“But I can’t give you a time frame as to when we may announce a decision,” DEA spokesman Russ Baer told The Cannabist. “We’re closer than we were a month ago. It’s a very deliberate process.”
While a report in The Cannabist dated Aug. 2 says the DEA is in the "final stages" of its decision and Baer said there's no timetable, an article by Westword -- also published on Aug. 2 -- said the DEA is unlikely to announce its decision in 2016.
If the DEA and FDA decide to recategorize marijuana from a Schedule I substance to Schedule II, the U.S. government would formally recognize that the drug has medical benefits -- meaning doctors across the U.S. could begin prescribing marijuana to patients with various ailments, according to Westword.
Even if that happens, patients shouldn't expect retail availability or situations like California's infamous medical marijuana dispensaries.
"You'd be able to get it through a prescription, (but) it won't be by smokeable leaf," attorney Tom Downey, the former director of the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses, told Westword. "You won't be able to go to your doctor and get prescribed a doobie."
Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, told High Times that rescheduling marijuana would mostly be a boon to researchers, not users.
“These goals can only be accomplished by federally descheduling cannabis in a manner similar to alcohol and tobacco, thus providing states the power to establish their own marijuana policies free from federal intrusion,” Armentano wrote. “If the DEA fails to take this opportunity to take such action, then it is incumbent that Congress does so posthaste.”