What Is Schedule I and Why Is Marijuana on the List, Anyway?

In 1970, the federal declared marijuana more dangerous than cocaine, meth, oxycodone, and fentanyl. It’s never changed its mind.

Almost every media report on marijuana legalization at the state level references the very fact that cannabis remains listed as a Schedule I illegal drug within the U.S.

In another word, despite 29 states legalizing medical marijuana and 8 states legalizing adult-use marijuana, our government still considers marijuana an illegal drug with no health benefits and a high potential for abuse.

But what exactly may be a Schedule I illegal drug? Who does the scheduling and why? What are a number of the opposite drugs on the list?

The following answers those questions and provides a summary of the five federal drug schedules — including the very fact that the U.S. ranks marijuana as having a better potential for abuse than cocaine, Vicodin and methamphetamines.

The who and therefore the why.

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) handles enforcement of the drug schedule and oversees any changes. President Nixon established the DEA in July 1973 to consolidate the federal government’s efforts in “a full-scale attack on the matter of substance abuse in America.” Until then, the anti-drug policy was administered by a variety of federal agencies like the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and therefore the Bureau of substance abuse Control.

Nixon created the new DEA agency by executive order No. 11727, signed July 7, 1973. He had talked about the matter of substance abuse and trafficking since taking office in 1968, including a 1971 “special message” to Congress.

“The problem has assumed the size of a national emergency,” he said therein message. The agency started with1,470 agents and a budget of but $75 million. It now has about 5,000 agents and a budget of quite $2 billion.


Nixon’s executive order also gave oversight of anti-drug efforts to the attorney general. Mitchell, who held the position at the time, created a “schedule” of medicine as a part of the 1970 drug Act. Mitchell, later disgraced during the Watergate, included marijuana on the list of medicine with no medical benefit and a high probability of abuse and addiction.

Congress approved the measure. It’s stayed there ever since.

Interestingly, marijuana had been listed as a legal medicine within the U.S. up until 1942. Even the American Medical Association initially opposed prohibiting its use, consistent with Scientific American, which also reported that by 1944 the La Guardia Committee report from the NY Academy of drugs questioned making marijuana illegal.

Officially, the prohibition against marijuana was alleged to be considered after debate on its medicinal possibilities. However, the key tapes that Nixon made during a part of his time within the White House make it clear he strongly opposed marijuana legalization.

Nixon asked for a “strong statement on marijuana” against legalization. He also said, “By God, we are getting to hit the marijuana thing, and that I want to hit it right square within the puss…I want to hit it, against legalization and everyone that kind of thing.”

Schedule I

Against that backdrop, the drug schedule was created. Drugs are often rescheduled by petitioning the DEA but the agency has ignored repeated petitions to get rid of marijuana from Schedule I for many years.

The schedule is split into five sections. Inclusion in each section depends on the drug’s potential medicinal uses and therefore the potential for dependency and abuse, consistent with the DEA.

Schedule I drugs have the very best potential for abuse and “the potential to make psychological and/or physical dependence,” consistent with the DEA. That potential decreases with each subsequent schedule.

Schedule I

Considered drugs with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” They include marijuana, heroin, LSD, ecstasy, methaqualone, and peyote.

Schedule II

These drugs are “also considered dangerous” with a high potential for abuse. They include Vicodin, cocaine, methamphetamine, methadone, oxycodone, fentanyl, Dexedrine, Adderall and Ritalin

Schedule III

The DEA describes these drugs as having a “moderate to low potential for physical or psychological dependence.” They include products with but 90 mm of codeine, ketamine, anabolic steroids, and testosterone.

Schedule IV

These drugs are listed as having a coffee potential for abuse or dependence. They include Xanax, Soma, Darvon, Valium, Ativan, and Ambien.

Schedule V

Basically, products that contain low levels of narcotics, like cough syrup.

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