DEA rules marijuana to remain at highest drug classification

WASHINGTON — Marijuana will remain on the government’s list of most highly regulated and dangerous drugs, the Obama administration says, despite growing popular support for the widespread legalization of pot.

The decision means that pot remains on a list of drugs that have no medical purpose. But the Drug Enforcement Administration did open the door to more research on the drug and its possible medical uses.

Some questions about the decision and what it means.

Q: What does the DEA announcement mean for the future of marijuana?

A: In the short term, not much. Marijuana has been illegal under federal law for decades, and the latest announcement from the DEA doesn’t change that. The DEA opted to keep pot listed as a Schedule I drug, which means it has no accepted medical purpose and a high potential for abuse.

Q: What other drugs are in the same category?

A: The DEA has categorized a variety of drugs as Schedule I, including heroin and peyote. Chuck Rosenberg, the acting head of the DEA, said not all of the drugs in that category are equally dangerous, but none has an accepted medical use. Cocaine, for instance, is listed as a Schedule II drug because it can be used for medical purposes in some cases.

Q: Is this the final ruling on how the DEA will treat marijuana?

A: Probably not. Rosenberg left open the possibility that the agency could review its decision in the future, saying “if the scientific understanding about marijuana changes — and it could change — then the decision could change.”

The DEA also announced that it would ease restrictions on research of marijuana and its possible use as a medicine. Currently only researchers at the University of Mississippi are allowed to grow pot for research purposes.

Q: How does the DEA’s decision affect state laws that allow the use and/or sale of marijuana for medicinal or recreational use?

A: For now, it doesn’t. The Justice Department announced in 2013 that the federal government would not interfere with state laws legalizing marijuana so long as local officials ensured that the drug was kept out of the hands of children, off the black market and away from federal property. Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana in some form, including recreational pot in Colorado, Washington state, Alaska and Oregon.

Thursday’s decision has no impact on that policy or guidance from the Treasury Department issued in 2014 that gave banks permission to do business with legal marijuana operations with conditions, including that they try to make sure that customers complied with state regulations.

Q: If marijuana has been illegal for decades, why did the DEA review pot’s status now?

A: In 2011 the then-governors of Washington state and Rhode Island petitioned the DEA to reclassify marijuana. The agency said it has been reviewing scientific studies and recommendations from the Health and Human Services Department as well as the Food and Drug Administration since then and announced its final decision this week.

Public support for legalizing marijuana has grown in recent years and more states have voted to legalize the drug in one form or another. Voters in multiple states are expected to vote on changing local drug laws in November.

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