Controlled substance classifications
Drug scheduling is a way of ranking illegal drugs based on their medical value and potential for abuse. Countries use scheduling systems to determine how to enforce laws against certain substances. The scheduling system usually ranks in numbers, and different countries have their own classifications for each drug, albeit mostly similar to each other and the United Nations (UN).
The UN classifies drugs from Schedule I through IV, using the same concept of medical value and potential for abuse, albeit worded differently. More specifically though, the UN’s definition uses the idea of the level of risk to public health and the therapeutic usefulness as determinant factors for which schedule rank a particular drug falls into.
The United States (US) has a similar scheduling system, as do many other countries. However, the US has five schedule ranks for controlled substances, and these ranks are based on potential for abuse and medical value.
New Zealand classifies its illegal drugs in three schedules — or Class A through C — under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975, based on risk of harm.
Cannabis is ranked into schedules in countries where it’s considered an illegal drug. Its rank is based on the countries definition of seriousness, based on factors similar to those discussed here. In the United States and under the UN’s classification, Cannabis is a Schedule I drug. In New Zealand, however, its resin and oils are classified under Schedule II (Class B) while the marijuana plant itself is classified as a Schedule III (Class C) drug.
What is a Schedule I drug?
Schedule I illegal drugs are generally the harder drugs. Under the United Nations classification system, Schedule I drugs pose the most serious risk to public health and have a very limited, if any, therapeutic usefulness.
The same holds true in the United States but the wording is a bit different. There, as previously stated, Schedule I drugs have the highest potential for abuse and no medical value at all.
Taking these definitions into consideration, you might wonder how cannabis is classified as a Schedule I drug in both the US and under the UN’s convention, keeping company with harder drugs such as heroine. In fact, under the US scheduling system, cocaine and methamphetamine are Schedule II drugs, ranked lower than the Schedule I marijuana.
The New Zealand’s Schedule I (Class A) drugs are also the most serious. They include the hardest drugs such as cocaine, heroine, and methamphetamine. Perhaps of the three examples given here — the US, UN, and New Zealand — its cannabis classification makes the most sense, ranking marijuana in the lowest illegal drug schedule — Schedule III (Class C).
What problem does a Schedule I ranking cause?
Considering the seriousness of a Schedule I classification, access to drugs in that category are extremely limited. In the US where Schedule I drugs are defined as having no medical value at all, scientists would have a difficult time gaining access to the substance legally for any research or clinical studies.
A Schedule I ranking also means a more serious approach to law enforcement in regards to drugs in that schedule. However, this isn’t necessarily the case everywhere, which in itself causes even more problems due to how confusing it is.
For example, in the US where cannabis is a Schedule I illegal drug on the federal level, the drug is legal in two-thirds of the country for either medical or recreational use. The federal government turns a blind eye to the states where cannabis is legal, even though it’s classified under the country’s most serious Schedule. This lack of uniformity creates an uncertain, confusing landscape.Further, a cannabis oil-based drug was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration as an epilepsy medication. This goes against the definition of a Schedule I illegal drug (in this case, cannabis) having no medical value at all, muddying the waters even more.
What are the implications for cannabis, where it’s classified as a Schedule I drug?
Typically, cannabis as a Schedule I drug means a lack of access and serious restrictions and law enforcement. That’s not the case in the US, however, as the drug is legal in several states.
However, restricting implications still exist on the federal level in the US, as those cannabis businesses operating in states where the drug is legal face several hurdles — mostly banking related — as a result of the continued federal prohibition.
As for the UN, a Schedule I classification limits cannabis research and clinical studies, as well as other activities related to the growing medical cannabis trend and global landscape. The UN, however, recognizes the different components of cannabis and their different applications, thereby classifying them under different schedules. But the limitations of a Schedule I classification with the likes of heroine still cast cannabis in a very negative light, hindering medical applications, as well as business exploits such as exports.
There has been some progress though, as the World Health Organization considers rescheduling cannabis.
Final words — is the categorization of cannabis going to change?
Naturally, wherever cannabis is legalised on a federal level, its classification is changed. If legalised for medical purposes only, the drug will likely fall a number of schedules, while remaining on the list of controlled substances given its still illegal recreational use, as is currently the case in New Zealand. If legalised for recreational use, however, the drug will likely be removed from the controlled substance list altogether.
In January, the director general of the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended cannabis be rescheduled under the UN convention in an effort to aid trade and scientific studies of the drug. While the proposal suggests a number of different rescheduling ranks for different cannabis components, the most significant is the recommendation that CBD products with no more than 0.2 percent of Tetrahydrocannabinol be removed from the controlled substance list altogether. A vote on the matter was scheduled for March, but has since been postponed.