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Legalization, Decriminalization & Rescheduling... What's the Difference?

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In recent years, the discourse surrounding cannabis has undergone a significant transformation, marked by a shift in both public perception and legislative action. Traditionally viewed through the lens of prohibition, cannabis is now at the forefront of many policy reform debates. All the discourse can leave more questions on what is currently happening, and what the future may hold. Let’s dive into some of these new terms, and what they mean for the legal future of cannabis.

To start, we must know a little about the Controlled Substance Act (CSA). This federal law passed by Congress in 1970, and signed by Richard Nixon regulates the production, import, possession, use, and distribution of certain substances in the United States. This law classifies each substance into one of five categories called schedules. These are based on eight criteria as follows:

1. The drug’s actual or relative potential for abuse.

2. Scientific evidence of its pharmacological effect, if known.

3. The state of current scientific knowledge regarding the drug or other substance. 

4. Its history and current pattern of abuse.

5. The scope, duration, and significance of abuse.

6. What, if any, risk there is to the public health.

7. Its psychic or physiological dependence liability. 

8. Whether the substance is an immediate precursor of a substance already controlled.

In the United States, cannabis is currently classified as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, labeling it as having a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use. However, legislation has the power to reschedule substances in the CSA. Rescheduling is a technical legal process that involves changing the classification of cannabis under controlled substance regulations. In changing cannabis from a Schedule I to a Schedule III would recognize it has medical benefits, as well as open the availability to research for more potential.

This does not mean that cannabis will be legalized. Legalization refers to the process of removing all legal prohibitions against cannabis, allowing for its regulated production, sale, and use within a legal framework. So, for a Schedule III substance there are legal frameworks of permits, compliance regulations, and checks and balances. Under Schedule III, the CSA still has penalties for the manufacturing, sale, and distribution of large quantities when not adhering to these laws.

This does not mean that every person with cannabis will still be incarcerated. Typically, as legislation passes to reschedule, they will also look at decriminalization, which involves reducing or eliminating criminal penalties for certain cannabis-related offenses. While it does not make cannabis legal, decriminalization shifts the focus from incarceration to lighter penalties such as fines and strategies for public health.

The way the public thinks of cannabis is changing quickly, influenced by new scientific findings and evolving laws. The CSA still plays a major role in how cannabis is regulated, currently listing it as a Schedule I drug with strict limitations. Moving cannabis to a lower classification like Schedule III could allow more medical research and regulated use. As the conversation around cannabis continues to grow, understanding these terms and their effects will be important for navigating its future regulation in the United States.


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